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Lip Glosses Contributing to Skin Cancer Epidemic

Apr 30, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Some dermatologists are saying that glopping on shiny lip glosses without appropriate SPF protection—and lip gloss rarely offers adequate protection—can actually increase your risk of developing skin cancer because the shiny nature of the gloss could be making the sun’s UV rays hit harder.  “These lip glosses can make more of the light rays penetrate directly through the skin instead of getting reflected off of the skin’s surface,” says Dr. Christine Brown, a dermatologist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

Some dermatologists say that in the worst case, the resulting sun damage can lead to potentially fatal forms of skin cancer.  An estimated 3,500 new cases of skin cancer of the lips are diagnosed yearly with 90 percent being squamous cell carcinoma.  Although not very serious, it can strike more aggressively on the lips than on other parts of the skin and, if untreated, can cause disfigurement.  In some cases, the cancer can fatally spread to other organs.

Less serious effects include non-cancerous disfigurements on the lips such as actinic keratosis, a small, scaly patch of skin that can become a wart-like bump if untreated.  Also called “farmer’s lip” or “sailor’s lip,” actinic keratosis often leads to squamous cell carcinoma.  Early treatment includes multiple laser treatments to deconstruct affected skin cells, which can leave lips raw, swollen, and oozing for weeks on end.

Sun exposure can also cause small brown spots that look like freckles on the lips; premature aging; and further thinning of the lips’ already thin skin, which can lead to rips and tears.  UV light takes away skins’ elasticity, leaving the skin lax, which—in lips—can prevent the upper and lower lips from lining up properly and can cause pools of saliva to collect at the mouths’ corners.

Dr. Bruce Robinson, a Manhattan dermatologist says that the moisture in lip gloss is the culprit because lips have a protective outer layer; however, the hydration of a lip gloss, "kind of smooshes that down."  Once that happens, it's easier for UV rays to penetrate deeper into the skin.  "Instead of having to travel through that thicker layer, it's more condensed," Robinson says. "So, the UV rays are reaching deeper layers of epidermis and dermis because you don't have this force field."

The shine factor of lip glosses can also be a problem.  “Take a magnifying glass and put it over your lips,” Robinson says. When you apply lip gloss and go out in the sun, “that’s essentially what you’re doing.”

No studies have been released on the skin cancer-lip gloss link and there are critics.  “The only way I could see it is if you’re thinking you’re protected, and you stay out in the sun longer, that may increase your risk,” says Robin Ashinoff, a dermatologist in Hackensack, N.J.

Some dermatologists recommend women choose lip balm with an SPF of at least 30, mix lipstick with zinc oxide, or layer lip balm with SPF 30 under their gloss.  Since most lip gloss offer no higher than SPF 15 protection, always wear a lip balm with SPF 30 under gloss.


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