I remember watching the 2004 documentary Hell on Wheels and being struck by the frighteningly sharp tan lines of the main protagonist and thinking that as well as being prone to a range of musculoskeletal problems that could haunt them for the remainder of their days that the legacy of their sun exposure over the years was also likely to rear its ugly head at some stage.
The slip slop slap campaign has been running for years in Australia and has been modified recently to include slide (on some sunglasses) and seek (shade). All of these measures are important though in this blog I just want to talk about sunscreens.
Sunscreens encompass any topical product that reduces ultraviolet light absorption by the skin and the consequent damage it causes. There are 2 basic types of sunscreens; physical blockers such as the oxide forms of titanium and zinc, and the chemical blockers (which all have reasonably long chemical names, some of which are interestingly distant cousins to cinnamon).
The physical blockers had recently become fashionable again because of concerns regarding allergic reactions to the chemical blockers (and although true that sunscreens are the commonest photoallergic sensitizing agents ie. more likely to cause an allergic skin response when exposed to sunlight than any other chemical agent, the risk is still far less important than the risk of developing skin cancers, in my view!).
Consequently a raft of new products came onto the market including those endorsed by various models including Megan Gale and Elle MacPherson. Unfortunately with the advent of nanoparticles (extremely small particle versions of these physical blockers) there has been some concern that they are so small that they can enter skin cells, cause the release of free radicals that can in turn damage those cells. The TGA (Therapeutics and Good Administration) who is the government body to determine various aspects of pharmaceutical products including safety, have put out a statement indicating there is no evidence that this occurs. Playing devil’s advocate one could argue that if there are alternative (as there are) non-nanonized physical blockers and chemical sunscreens then why run the risk of using a nanonized product if in 20 years time we decide it wasn’t such a great idea after all. Given the choice, if my options are to use a nanonized product as opposed to none at all then I’d choose the former as the risk of photoaging and developing cancerous or precancerous lesions due to repeated sunlight exposure is both more likely and possibly more significant.
For more information read the article on my practice website about nanoparticles in sunscreen (a not so subtle plug for my practice)
The alternative to physical blockers, chemical blockers, have a broader range of wavelengths and their biggest problem as with most sun screens is that they “wear-off” quite quickly so that many products can start with an SPF (sun protection factor) over 100 though rapidly decline to single figures within 2-3 hours. One of the most interesting advances in recent years is not sunscreens with higher SPFs (some are already close to 180, it’s just that advertising laws prevent packaging indicating anything more than 30+, soon to be revised to 50+) but sunscreens that are more photostable (ie. remain at a higher SPF with prolonged sunlight exposure). My current favourite sunscreen is Ultimate Sport by Neutrogena which has an SPF of 124 and maintains a high SPF even after 4 hours. It tends not to run when sweating, doesn’t smell and comes as a mist version for those who don’t like to rub in sunscreens. Other sunscreens I’ve used and like include Hamiltons Optiva ‘(smells like Jaffas) and Sun Sense Mist (Particularly good for sweaty and hairy skin).
At the end of the day the important thing is it probably doesn’t matter too much whether you choose to use a physical blocker alone or a combination of a physical and chemical blockers, but rather that some type of sunscreen is used and reapplied every 2-3 hours (particularly if outside for that duration).
Two last points to consider:
- Actual studies have been conducted looking at how people apply sunscreen and have shown that we all miss spots and tend to under-use sunscreen based on the recommended volumes for the surface areas that need to be covered – so be generous and try to remember every nook and cranny, as well as combining your sunscreen with sunglasses and sensible clothing (including a peaked cap under the helmet), On this last point, the air vents in helmets also tend to let in light and can produce some interesting sun-burns in those follicularly challenged (think I only ever saw you do that once Greg!) At the other end of the spectrum, hairy or hairless legs probably only influence the ease of application of sunscreen and not the inherent susceptibility of these regions to burning (apart from subtly, or not so, indicating to other riders a perceived level of cycling skill and strength);
- The debate about vitamin D deficiency due to inadequate sunlight exposure is probably not as straight forward as most people think. The number of people I’m seeing who either work outdoors or spend considerable amounts of recreational time outdoors and are being told after tests for vitamin D by their GPs that they have a deficiency is ridiculously high. Personally, I suspect there may be an issue with absorption of vitamin D from our guts as opposed to either the amount we ingest or the amount of sunlight we get (at least in Australia). Click here to read more about the Vitamin D Debate. (another not so subtle plug)