Cover Up: Are Clothes Better than Sunscreen?
A study of over 1,800 children suggests that wearing clothes during outdoor activities may be more effective at preventing the development of moles (nevi) than using sunscreen, reports the American Journal of Epidemiology (2005;161:620–7). Moles may be a precursor for melanoma, an often-fatal form of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US, and the prevalence is rapidly rising. Melanoma is not the most common form of skin cancer but it is by far the deadliest. The percentage of people diagnosed with melanoma has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is the leading cause of all skin cancers. People who are fair-skinned, have a history of severe sunburns (especially in childhood), have relatives with skin cancer, have a weakened immune system, or have been exposed to certain chemicals found in pesticides and wood preservatives are at greater risk of developing melanoma. The greatest risk factor, however, is having moles on the body.
Moles are benign (noncancerous) skin lesions where pigment-producing cells are concentrated. Most moles are not present at birth, but are acquired with advancing age and exposure to the sun. Measures to decrease sun exposure (wearing protective clothing and/or using sunscreen) are recommended to reduce the risk of developing moles and skin cancer. The protective effect of sunscreen, however, has been debated in recent studies.
The new study examined the effect of clothing and sunscreen use on mole development in 1,812 children between the ages of 2 and 7. Parents provided information about their children’s sun exposure patterns, including outdoor summer and vacation activities and the history and severity of sunburns. They also answered questions about sunscreen use: frequency of use, areas to which the sunscreen was applied, and the SPF (sun protection factor) of the sunscreen product. In addition, information was gathered about the type and amount of clothing worn while at the beach or pool. The children were examined and the number of moles recorded.
Sunscreen did not appear to protect against the development of moles; this was true regardless of the frequency of sunscreen use and the SPF of the sunscreen. Wearing clothes, however, provided significant protection, and children who wore the most clothing during outdoor activities had the fewest number of moles.
These results suggest that clothing should be worn to minimize sun exposure, and that sunscreen should not be relied upon as a sole means of protecting the skin from UV radiation. The authors of the study emphasize that sunscreen should be applied to exposed areas of skin.
Children, especially infants, are particularly prone to hazards from UV light, as the pigment producing cells in their skin have not fully formed. Sunscreen is not recommended for use on children less than six months old. Special SPF clothing is available that can block out a substantial amount of UV light and may be safely worn by babies and young children.
Despite the potential dangers of excessive sun exposure, complete avoidance of the sun is discouraged by some experts because it can lead to vitamin D deficiency. One vitamin D researcher recommends daily exposure of the hands, face, and arms, or arms and legs, to sunlight for a period equal to one-quarter of the time it would take to cause a light pinkness of the skin.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is a co-founder and practicing physician at South County Naturopaths, Inc., in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp teaches holistic medicine classes and provides consultations focusing on detoxification and whole-foods nutrition.
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