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Strong Sunscreens May Up Cancer Risk

August 3, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ People using stronger sunscreens don’t feel the effects of sunburn as quickly and spend more time outside, which increases their risk of skin cancer, according to a study that finds even the best prevention isn’t foolproof.

The European researchers concluded that ``sunscreens may encourage prolonged sun exposure because they delay sunburn,″ results they said help explain previous studies linking sunscreen use with higher skin cancer rates.

``It’s not due to the fact that sunscreens are bad. It’s because people have a bad attitude, using sunscreens to increase the amount of time they spend in the sun,″ said Dr. Ferdy Lejeune, an author of the study being published Wednesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

In a study of 87 French and Swiss college students, researchers gave half of them sunscreen with a protection factor of 10 and the other half with a factor of 30. The students, who weren’t told which lotion they received, went on summer vacations and recorded the amount of time they spent in the sun.

Users of the stronger sunscreen spent 25 percent more time in the sun, mostly sunbathing, the study found.

Sarah McElvain, 20, a sunbather at Georgetown Swimming Pool in Washington, daubs lotion with a protection factor of 15 on her face, chest and stomach. She uses lotion with a lesser factor on her arms and legs. She said she doubts the strength of the sunscreen affects the time she spends sunbathing.

``I’m stubborn when it comes to the sun,″ McElvain said. ``It’s horrible, it’s bad for you, but at this point in my life a tan is considered attractive.″

Anne Burrell, 46, of Washington, spends only an hour at a time sunbathing with sunscreen after learning a hard lesson. ``I used to put baby oil on and bake. When I started getting wrinkles, that changed,″ she said.

``Everything my mother said would happen to my skin has happened,″ she lamented.

Although skin cancer is preventable, the incidence of melanoma in the United States increases 4 percent a year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Previous research also has shown that people who use sunscreen have increased incidence of melanoma and other skin cancers.

Lejeune said the students in the European study often waited until their skin turned red before rushing to the shade. Those unknowingly using the stronger sunscreen waited longer and had greater exposure to cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.

The researchers also noted that the students did not appear to use adequate amounts of the sunscreen, bringing back tubes with too much lotion. ``Our study participants should have consumed three to four times the quantities actually used,″ the study said.

They said improper use of the sunblock didn’t affect the overall findings, however.

In a study published in December, the same researchers reported that a study of 631 European school children found those using the most sunscreen were most likely to have sun-caused moles, a sign that skin cancer might develop later in life. While the lotion itself did not cause moles, it may have made parents overconfident about how long their children could safely play outdoors, the researchers said.

Karen Emmons, a researcher with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, cautioned that those who hear about the studies shouldn’t conclude, ``Oh, well. I’m still going to get skin cancer, so why bother?″

``It’s very important that people use sunscreen and apply it appropriately,″ she said.

Emmons recommended that people also should avoid direct sunlight by staying in the shade and wearing hats and other protective clothing.

Children are especially vulnerable to ultraviolet radiation and need more than just protective lotions, she said.

``The number one way that children are protected from the sun is using sunscreen,″ she said, ``and parents need to get with the program and start using other kinds of protections.″

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