What Everyone Should Know About Sunscreen

How to select the best sunscreen and sun protection for your family

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

The possible dangers of spending time in the sun have been getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason — there are more than a million new cases of skin cancer in the US each year. With a little knowledge, you can make that time in the sun a bit safer.

Thanks to recent label changes on sunscreen, your chances of selecting the right sunscreen for you and your family just got easier. While staying out of the sun is the best precaution against sunburn and worse, it just isn’t always an option. Here is the information you need to make the best decisions about sunscreens and sun safety.

Protection From What?

A great deal of the sun's harmful rays are filtered out by the Earth’s atmosphere, but not all of it. The sunlight that reaches us is made up of long wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short wave ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that can cause sunburns, skin cancer and early aging.

UVB rays can damage the outer most layers of skin, which can result in sunburn or other skin damage. All sunscreens offer protection from UVB rays, but authorities on skin cancer, like the American Melanoma Foundation, agree that this level of protection simply isn’t enough.

UVA rays account for up to 95 percent of the UV radiation that people are exposed to, and it sinks deep into the skin, penetrating the dermis, the skins thickest layer. UVA rays are responsible for the sun's tanning effect on skin, which is a major contributor to early skin aging, wrinkles and skin cancer.

The Basics of Sun Safety

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no safe amount of skin tanning, either natural or from a tanning booth. More than one million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. You can better protect yourself and your family while enjoying the outdoors through learning about sunscreen labels and basic sun safety.

Sunscreen is an important part of sun safety, but it should never be the first line of sun defense. To fully protect your skin from the sun, you should follow a few simple rules:

  • Cover up with clothing that offers protection from UV rays. While clothing provides some protection from the sun, UV rays can get through fabrics that are light colored, wet or loosely woven. The darker and thicker the clothing, the better protection it will provide from the sun.
  • Find shade when outside. Avoiding direct sunlight lowers your exposure to UV rays but won’t eliminate them.
  • Avoid the midday sun. Plan activities for morning or late afternoon to reduce your exposure to UV rays.
  • Stay away from the tanning booth. UVA radiation inside a tanning booth can be 12 times greater than that of the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. People who use tanning booths have a significantly higher rate skin cancer diagnoses.
  • Don’t be fooled by clouds. Even though you don’t feel the heat of the direct sun on your skin, as much as 80 percent of damaging UV rays can pass right through cloud cover, causing sunburn and other skin damage.

Understanding Sunscreen Labels

Thanks to tighter regulations and enforcement by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Americans can make informed decisions about how they protect themselves and their families from the sun. The FDA created new regulations for simple-to-understand sunscreen labels that require manufacturers to provide testing data to back up any protection claim they make.

Sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or lower must carry a warning that reads, "Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."

Products have to be realistic in their claims. Sunscreens may no longer claim instant protection or protection that lasts longer than two hours without reapplying. These new regulations mean you get the protection on the label if you follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully.

No sunscreen is “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” and manufacturers can no longer make this false claim. The fact is that sunscreen has to be reapplied regularly. New labels will tell consumers specifically how often to reapply when swimming or sweating. The FDA allows claims of water resistance of either 40 or 80 minutes based on the results of detailed water resistance testing.

Any claims that a sunscreen is broad spectrum must be backed up by testing. To be considered broad spectrum, a sunscreen must block both UVB and UVA rays. While all sunscreen products block UVB rays and provide some protection from sunburn, broad spectrum sunscreens block UVA rays, which can cause skin cancer and premature aging. Products that are not broad spectrum must now carry the same warning label as sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or lower.

How Sunscreens Work

It may seem overwhelming to make a choice from the wall of sun protection products at your local store, but the new FDA regulations may make that choice easier. Let’s take a look at the important considerations when selecting sunscreen.

There are two types of sunscreen that perform the same basic function: chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens, also called organic, work by absorbing UV light and converting it to heat. Chemical sunscreen can include a long list of chemicals like octyl salicylate, oxybenzone or sulisobenzone.

Physical sunscreen, also called inorganic, works by reflecting or scattering the UV rays when they make contact with the sunscreen. Physical sunscreens usually contain titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both. Most broad spectrum sunscreens are a physical sunscreen.

When a product provides SPF 15 protection, it means that when used per the manufacturer’s directions, the protection from sunburn is 15 times longer than it would normally take you to burn with no protection. This means applying the product evenly and heavily, and reapplying at the recommended time intervals. SPF 30 is capable of protecting against sunburn for a longer amount of time, but provides only slightly more protection. SPF 15 filters approximately 93 percent of UV rays, while SPF 30 filters out about 97 percent of UV rays when used properly.

Spray or Cream?

The type of sunscreen you use depends of your preference. Sprays and gels are easier to apply to areas covered in hair, like the scalp or a man’s chest. Sprays are also popular for applying to children, but care should be taken to avoid breathing in the product fumes. Cream is a good choice for people with dry skin and around the face.

No matter what type of sunscreen you choose, ensure you follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully and use an even and generous coating.

Sunscreen for Children

The Mayo Clinic says that you can use sunscreen on children as young as 6 months of age. Infants under the age of 6 months should be kept in the shade, away from harmful UV rays.

Children may require more frequent reapplications of sunscreen, depending on their activity level. Playing in sand or rolling on the ground can remove sunscreen more quickly.

Always Protect Your Family From the Sun

"The most preventable risk factor for any skin cancer is sun exposure, and sunscreen coupled with prudent lifestyle choices can help reduce that risk," said Eric D. Whitman, MD, FACS, Director of the Atlantic Melanoma Center of Morristown and Overlook Medical Centers.

"Although there are many factors related to skin cancer development, excessive sun exposure, particularly as a young person, is probably the most important single issue," Dr. Whitman told dailyRx News.

"Sun tanning booths almost certainly increase the risk of skin cancer and melanoma, particularly in young people whose skin structures are still developing. That's why it's so important that a growing number of states have placed much needed restrictions on artificial tanning by minors," he said.

Protecting yourself and your family from the harmful rays of the sun doesn’t have to be a full-time job, but it should be a priority. Just one sunburn can increase your risk for skin cancer, and many skin cancers result from an accumulation of non-burning sun exposure, according to the Skin Care Foundation. Don’t get burned, practice good sun safety, and remember to keep plenty of sunscreen on hand.

Review Date: 
June 12, 2014