All those sun-sense messages about protecting our skin from damaging rays have turned me into an avid user of sunblock. I never leave the house without lathering a protective lotion with a high SPF over any exposed skin. It's a far cry from my high school days when at lunchtime we'd hitch up our pale blue uniforms and plaster Tropical Blend oil over our legs in order to tan faster.
Yet the issue of sun protection is fraught with complication. Our bodies produce vitamin D when the sun is on our skin so by applying protective lotion we are losing or reducing this opportunity. We're also exposing ourselves to products that may irritate our skin and, furthermore, nano-particles - which are found in some sunscreens - may present a separate set of health risks if they are absorbed.
There are also concerns as to whether the level of sun protection promised on the packaging is actually being delivered. In 2008 it was reported that a Cancer Society sunscreen spray tested by Consumer NZ was found to be under-performing in this regard.
I've had two encounters with Cancer Society sunscreen. The first time I used it, angry rashes appeared on my normally hardy hands and chest; my doctor prescribed a lotion which worked swiftly. Then in April on holiday my friend offered me some Cancer Society sunblock as we lay poolside on Langkawi Island, Malaysia. I viewed the sunscreen with suspicion but figured it would be okay if I used it sparingly and just the once.
The unpleasant tingling sensation started almost immediately. I ignored it for a few days and tried not to scratch my burning arms and stomach. But the rash started to spread and go scaly. Then after one restless night during which my skin felt like it was on fire I woke up to discover the sites were crusty and weeping.
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I contacted my GP back home who thought I would need Locoid lipocream, antibiotics and a tar-based solution to wash with. The nurse at the resort couldn't access those particular items but she supplied me with pills and lotions that eased the problem. Back in Auckland it took two separate GP visits and increasingly powerful prescriptions to clear up my skin. The red welts across my stomach took weeks to fade. I won't be touching Cancer Society sunscreen again.
So I was interested to read Investigate Magazine's press release entitled Chemical Linked to Low IQ Found In NZ Cancer Society Sunscreens. Although the chemical was discovered in the combined sunscreen and insect repellent products (and not, it seems, in the specific lotion I happened to use), it just reinforced my belief that these particular products are not entirely trustworthy and may even, in certain circumstances, create more problems than they purport to solve.
According to the press release, Ian Wishart's new book Vitamin D: Is this the miracle vitamin? "explores the latest studies linking low vitamin D levels to a raft of major health issues, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's." It's a view broadly reinforced by the Herald Online's timely article Get more Vitamin D and live longer: study. Evidently Wishart's book cites overseas studies that "have estimated that for every one life saved from melanoma because of slip, slop, slap campaigns, a further 10 people have died from illnesses directly linked to a lack of vitamin D."
These are worrying claims for a society which has taken the anti-sunshine campaigns to heart to assimilate. Over the years we've doubtless collectively spent many millions of dollars on sun protection products and many millions of hours applying them - all in the interests of good health. And now we're being told that not only were those precautions perhaps not necessary but they may have caused us harm. Well, quite frankly, that leaves me speechless.
What's your view of the sun-smart campaigns? What sun protection do you recommend? Do you have a favourite sunscreen? Have you ever had a bad reaction to a particular brand? After years of avoiding the sun, are you now worried about your Vitamin D levels?