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Wednesday, July 7, 2010


I have the classic combination of red hair, pale skin and freckles. Yesterday I went to Wrightsville Beach, sat in the sun for three hours, and didn't burn. How is this possible?

Only because of sunscreen, one of the unheralded great inventions of the 20th century.

I don’t remember exactly when sunscreen – as opposed to “suntan lotion” like Coppertone – became widely available. 1980 or thereabouts? I do remember the numerous sunburns of my youth: pain, then itching a week later, and finally the squamous cell carcinomas thirty years later. I’ve had several of those skin cancers removed, so I'll enjoy biannual visits to a dermatologist for the rest of my life.

Except one occasion in northern California on vacation when cool temperatures tricked me into not noticing the full sun, I haven't had a major sunburn in 25 years.

Interestingly, sunscreen has become a controversial topic, as the Wikipedia article describes in detail. The criticisms include:

  • Many sunscreens don’t block UV-A – long-wave ultraviolet, similar to “black light” -- which can cause melanomas although it doesn't burn your skin.
  • If used frequently, sunscreen inhibits production of vitamin D.
  • There is conflicting statistical evidence on whether sunscreens actually reduce incidence of skin cancers like I’ve had.
  • Many consumers don’t apply sunscreens properly and therefore are still burned.
  • Some formulations of sunscreens have been found to be potentially dangerous.

I suppose we’re fortunate that sunscreens haven’t been classified as prescription drugs -- or even banned! Our well-intentioned public health system tends to over-react at times (and to under-react at other times). The fact remains that for folks whose genes were perfected for cloudy northern European climates, sunscreen is a blessing.