When we slather up with sun tan lotion, most of us bypass our lips. We coat our arms, our legs, our foreheads and noses with a suitable SPF — but putting lotion on the lips is a non starter. And few people use a separate protective lip balm. In fact, a recent study out of Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas found that fewer than 25 percent of Americans protect their lips from the sun.
That’s a big problem, because our lips are among the most vulnerable places on our bodies — exceptionally prone to cancers and aging damage. According to dermatologist Christine Brown, “When skin cancer occurs on the lower lip, it has the potential to be much more aggressive and metastasize to surrounding lymph nodes.”
If you’re thinking, “Oh, but I use lip gloss, so I’m protected,” the news gets worse. Shiny coatings on your lips in fact attract the rays of the sun, and so gloss and many lipsticks actually increase exposure.
“What most people don’t realize is they’re actually increasing light penetration through the lip surface by applying something clear and shiny to them,” Dr. Brown says. She recommends coating the lips with an SPF 30 lotion before applying gloss or lipstick anytime you’ll be exposed for 20 minutes or longer. But in fact, a number of companies now make 30 SPF protective lip balm.
Of course, Dr. Brown’s advice assumes that suntan lotion and protective balms do indeed offer some protection. According to studies, it ain’t necessarily so. Last year, the Environmental Working Group found that “more than 84% of suntan lotions with high SPF (sun protection factor) levels actually fail to protect sunbathers against all harmful rays — or quickly lose effectiveness.” That research found that very few products worked the way they claimed they did, with the majority protecting only against sunburn and failing to protect against harmful UVA rays — the rays that cause aging, immune diseases, and skin cancer. Plus, the so-called “all day protection” claims touted on the bottles turned out to be largely mythological, as many of the lotions quickly broke down when exposed to sun.
Of equal concern, research confirms that most sunscreens contain toxic ingredients. Sunscreens typically contain at least 20 chemical ingredients that can get absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. A new study by the CDC found that the chemical oxybenzoneone, used in almost all sunscreens, can cause allergies, hormone disruption, cancer, and cell damage. Another study from Mount Sinai Medical School implicated the same chemical to low-birth weight in girls whose mothers were exposed when pregnant. The research concluded that over 97 percent of Americans have been tainted by this chemical.
Typically, zinc oxide and titanium oxide form the basis of suntan lotion, while ingredients like oxybenzoneone and octinoxate help absorb the other chemicals into the skin. Most studies show that the nanoparticles of zinc and titanium oxide in the lotion cause no real problems, but chemicals like oxybenzoneone and oxtinoxate poses serious safety concerns. Other nasty chemicals often found in suntan products include Octyl methoxycinnamate, a carcinogen, chemical fragrances, and propylene glycol, also used in antifreeze and brake fluid.
Okay, so now you’re freaked out about putting suntan lotions and balms on your body and lips. And yet, your mouth — and the rest of your body — does need sun protection. What can you do?
Start by studying the list of comparatively safe lotions prepared by the EWG. Don’t assume that the lotion is harmless or effective just because the bottle calls it “natural” or because it sits on the shelf at the health food store. As you’ll see from the EWG list, some natural brands contain scary ingredients. On the other hand, some natural ingredients (green tea polyphenols, black tea gel, and broccoli extract — no kidding) offer great protection, and again, the EWG list contains some good options. So find a safe product and cover your entire exposed body with it — including those lips.
Also, eat well and supplement with antioxidants in order to minimize free-radical damage. Enjoy lots of tomatoes (high in lycopene), which studies have found to offer exceptional sun protection. Wear a hat, wear protective clothing, and forget the lip gloss altogether, as it contains many of the evil ingredients found in suntan lotion — and more.