PHOTO: Florian Breitenberger
PHOTO: Florian Breitenberger

Your Sunscreen Might be Doing More Harm Than Good

Skiers have a higher risk of developing skin cancer—here's how to prevent it

There are more than 5 million cases of skin cancer diagnosed in the United States each year, making it the most common cancer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most cases of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, are caused by exposure to ultraviolet light (like the sun) which means skiers--or anyone with an active year-round outdoor lifestyle--have a much higher risk of developing skin cancer than the general population. Our own editor-at-large Matt Hansen bravely wrote about his experience here.

In a recent study by the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the University of Utah Health, 394 ski resort employees at two Utah ski resorts were screened for skin cancer.

They diagnosed 38 workers (nearly 10 percent of participants) with skin cancer, recommended biopsies for 20 percent and referred more than a third for further evaluation.

While these numbers don't represent a random sampling, as the screening was voluntary, nearly half said they wouldn't have otherwise gone to a physician to have their skin checked.

Utah has the highest incidence of melanoma in the nation. Other states with the highest number of people who get skin cancer include, but not limited to, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, California, and Colorado--all states where you're likely to go skiing.

The good news is skin cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer. In addition to limiting sun exposure, especially during the peak of the day, wearing a buff to cover your face and neck is recommended. Yes, even in the dead of winter. Cool temperatures don't dim UV rays.

The CDC also recommends using sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher on a daily basis--even if you're just driving your car to work--and should be reapplied every two hours if you're active. As a note, sunscreen alone doesn't protect against all sun damage.

Sunscreen works by absorbing, reflecting, and scattering sunlight. The chemicals that protect your skin from UV rays, however, may have some nasty side effects that do more harm than good to both you and the environment. The Environmental Working Group (a non-profit, non-partisan organization) releases an annual guide to sunscreens. Want to know how your sunscreen scored? See the full report here.

Two of our favorite sunscreens, which were both rated as having high protection and are made with ingredients rated as posing a low health concern are:

Beyond Coastal Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30
Beyond Coastal Sunscreen was founded by a skier who wanted a safe product that could stand up to harsh, high-altitude sun. The brand was recognized (for the 7th year in a row) as one of the safest sunscreen brands on the market by the EWG. Tested on skiers like McKenna Peterson, Griffin Post, and Chris Davenport, we’ve used this super thick stuff regularly for the past few years and have written about their line of Active Sunscreen before, too.

Beyond Coastal sunscreen

Courtesy of Beyond Coastal

Raw Elements USA Face + Body, SPF 30.
Developed by a former ocean lifeguard, Raw Elements is not only safe and effective for human use, it’s safe for the environment as well. Made with 23 percent zinc oxide (the only active ingredient), we’ve found Raw Elements sunscreen doesn’t run or sting the eyes. It’s also highly water-resistant (we see you pond skimmers!) and comes in a metal tin that is plastic-free.

Courtesy of Raw Elements

Here's what to stay away from:

• Avoid sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, an allergen and a hormone disruptor that soaks through skin and poses a hazard to human health and the environment. Along with retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin, oxybenzone was found in 2/3 of the 650 sunscreens tested by the EWG this year.

• Bigger SPF ratings are not always better. In reality, higher SPF ratings don't necessarily offer greater protection from UV-related skin damage, especially UVA damage, and may lead users to spend too much time in the sun. In 2011, the FDA determined that high SPF claims may be inherently misleading, especially if they claim to be higher than SPF 50.

• Avoid spray-on sunscreens. Despite concerns about effectiveness, there are more of these products on the market than ever. The FDA, along with EWG, is concerned spray-on sunscreens pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin.