Confused About Sunscreen?
June 02, 2018
Submitted by Doug Leone, MD, and Adrienne Schupbach, MD, Dermatology and Mohs Surgery Institute
Summer is here, which means it’s time for outdoor activities like swimming, boating, biking, playing ball, or gardening. All that fun in the sun also means practicing proper sun protection! The need for sun safety has become clearer over the past 30 years as studies conclusively show that exposure to the sun causes skin cancer. In fact, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country and the American Cancer Society estimates that one American dies every hour from skin cancer. Skin cancer is, however, largely preventable through a sun protection program which includes using sunscreen.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about sunscreen, and no wonder! Peruse the sunscreen aisle of any drugstore and the choices are overwhelming — terms like SPF, UVA, UVB, PABA, HelioplexTM, Anthelios SX, free radicals, broad spectrum, and the list goes on! While the sunscreen labeling required by the FDA may seem confusing, the main thing to look for is one labeled "Broad Spectrum" and “SPF 30” (or higher).
Once you sift through all the fancy marketing labels, here’s what else you should know about buying and using sunscreen.
- Almost all sunscreens are now “Broad Spectrum" with an SPF of 15 or higher. Sun damage is caused by different types of ultraviolet radiation (UV) that can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells. UVA radiation penetrates deep into the skin and is believed to cause damage to connective tissue, increase a person's risk for developing skin cancer, and is the primary cause of premature aging. UVB radiation causes sunburn, even though UVB rays primarily affect the surface of the skin. Broad spectrum means protection against all types of sun-induced skin damage from both UVA and UVB rays. Anything not labeled as broad spectrum or with an SPF lower than 15 only protects against sunburn, but not other types of skin damage.
- SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. There is a common misconception that SPF 15 means you can safely stay in the sun 15 times longer than if your skin was unprotected; this is not true. SPF 30 is not twice as protective as an SPF of 15. Rather, when properly used, an SPF of 15 protects the skin from 93 percent of UVB radiation and an SPF of 30 provides 97 percent UVB protection. Although the SPF ratings apply mainly to UVB rays, broad-spectrum sunscreens must include ingredients that protect skin from UVA rays as well.
- There are two main categories of sunscreen: those that provide a physical barrier to the sun’s rays, and those that include chemical ingredients to absorb the sun’s rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only ingredients that provide a physical barrier by reflecting both UVA and UVB rays back into the environment. These ingredients may be used alone or combined with chemical ingredients to provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
- Sunscreens are not waterproof or sweatproof! Some may be labeled as “water resistant” which means it stays on your skin longer even if it gets wet, but you still need to re-apply at least every two hours.
- Sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun.
- Certain medications can significantly increase sun sensitivity.
- It’s best to keep babies under six months out of the sun. If this is not possible, you can use sunscreen that contains only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on small areas of the body like the face. In addition to applying sunscreen, babies can wear clothing with built in sun protection, broad-brimmed hats, and uv blocking sunglasses.
- Check the sunscreen's expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures. It’s a good idea to toss sunscreen from the previous summer.
- Price or name brand has nothing to do with the quality or effectiveness of sunscreen. The important thing is to find a brand that you like so you’ll use it!
You’ve heard it before, but we’ll say it again that you should try to limit sun exposure between 10am and 2pm, when the sun's rays are strongest. Even on an overcast day, up to 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can get through the clouds. If you plan to be outside on a sunny day, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and get serious about sunscreen.
For more information or to schedule an appointment, you may contact the Dermatology and Mohs Surgery Institute at 309-451-DERM (3376) www.dermatologistbloomington.com. Dr. Leone and Dr. Schupbach, both residents of Bloomington, are board-certified dermatologists, specializing in medical and cosmetic dermatology, including the treatment of skin cancer, moles, acne, rashes, warts, and all skin disorders. Dr. Leone is one of the few Mohs-trained surgeons in the area. Their practice, is located at 3024 E. Empire St. 2nd floor, in the Advocate BroMenn outpatient center.
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