05/08/2013 08:40 BST | Updated 02/10/2013 06:12 BST

Sunscreen: Bad for Your Health?



Back in 1960s these last few weeks of sunshine would have had sun worshippers out slathering themselves in oil in the quest for a golden tan. Today, however, we only have to so much as catch a glimpse of sunshine before we are scurrying for a bottle of sunscreen.

For over 20 years we have been repeatedly warned about the dangers of too much time in the sun, which can lead to skin cancer, premature aging and sunburn. This message has been so successful that for many of us it is almost unthinkable to venture into the sunshine for prolonged periods of time without covering ourselves in sunscreen, and if you have children it's practically considered child abuse not to coat them in a layer of factor 50.

Now protecting yourself from the sun has spread beyond just buying sunscreen. Today you can get make-up with SPF, clothes with UV protection, and even windows made from glass that blocks out harmful rays.

But is our obsession with sun protection actually doing us more harm than good?

Despite sales of sunscreen lotions increasing and campaigns warning people about the dangers of sun exposure, the cases of malignant melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) in the UK has risen from 3.2 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 17.2 in 2010, Cancer Research revealed. This increase is due in part to an increase in frequency of holidays abroad, according to the charity.

Still the stats don't lie. We are buying more sunscreen but more of us are getting skin cancer. There is no debate about the fact that sun factors offer protect against UVA and UVB rays, which cause cancer. However many people are unsure of how often and how much to apply. This results in many people out in strong sunlight unaware that they are without adequate protection.

Saying this, the NHS also recommends spending time in the sun to enable the body to produce a sufficient amount of vitamin D, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones. Vitamin D is also thought to help against cancer (although there is debate within the medical community about the evidence to support this).

Although no specific recommendations are given to how long people should stay outside without sun protection, the general consensus is that if you have fair skin you shouldn't be out for longer than 15 minutes, while those with darker skin tones need more sun exposure.

What is agreed is that vitamin D is essential for the prevention of rickets in children. Earlier this year a case made headlines when a mother discovered that by smothering her son in factor 50 every time he went outside contributed to him suffering from rickets. In an even more serious case, a couple were charged with murdering their baby, until it was discovered he died from the disease.

There has also been an increasing concern over the chemicals being used to manufacture sunscreens. A few years ago concern was raised about the use of nanoparticles in sunscreen, which led to the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia, a country which has the highest incidences of skin cancer in the world, looking into the evidence. It reported that there is no current evidence to prove a risk. However, at a time when people are becoming more suspicious about what is being put into their foods, especially after the horse-meat scandal, along with chemicals being put into the products we use, this will add concern over the amount of chemicals used to manufacture sunscreens. There is now a small movement by those concerned about the chemicals in sunscreens to shun the product altogether and instead ensure that they are protected by covering up and staying in the shade.

So should you head outdoors sunscreen-free? Probably not. There are still a lot of scientific research and government recommendations that advise wearing sunscreens. Instead it is important to be aware of what you are putting onto your skin, ensuring you apply sun factors properly, and keep up with medical research, as health information about sun exposure is changing all the time.

Back in 2004 the BBC reported that Dr Michael Holick lost his job as Professor of Dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine for saying that people need sensible sun exposure or else they will not produce enough vitamin D. Nearly 10 years later and both Cancer Research and the NHS state that being in the sun safely will help people to get the benefits of vitamin D. So who knows what will happen in the next 10 years?

Image by Elfod Nemeth on Flickr