The truth about sunscreen

It has been commonly thought that wearing sunscreen before long periods of sun exposure is the answer to preventing skin cancer.

Yes, while it is true that most sunscreens prevent the sunburn caused by ultraviolet B rays that can potentially raise your risk for skin cancer, it is also important to know that most sunscreens do not protect against ultraviolet A rays — the ones responsible for aging, skin damage and the one experts say has a possible role in skin cancer.

An article published by the New York Times on their Well blog noted the increase of sunscreen sales and the still-climbing rates of skin cancer in the United States (an estimated one in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime), pointing the finger at poor consumer education and the quality of the sunscreen available on the shelf.

Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum protection” mean they protect against UVA and UVB rays, but the UVA protection may not be as strong as the UVB protection. Sunscreens with a higher SPF also have been show to not be as effective. Products labeled “waterproof” aren’t guaranteed to be waterproof, only water-resistant for a limited period of time after application.

The Food and Drug Administration has taken new measures to correct these and other misguiding information on sunscreen labels. The changes will limit the maximum SPF value on  labels to “50+”, request safety and effectiveness testing for sunscreen products in non-lotion form (such as sprays) and will establish the standards for testing the effectiveness of the products and require the proper labeling of the test results.

The Times article provided these tips for selecting the right sunscreen product:

  • Find a sunscreen with “broad spectrum protection” and an SPF of 15 to 50.
  • Avoid using sunscreen sprays. The FDA has requested more data on the effectiveness on sprays, with the concern that the spray can be inhaled into the lungs and that not enough sunscreen gets onto the skin.
  • Do not use sunscreen on infants. They should be kept out of the sun. If they are outdoors, keep infants in the shade and covered. For more information read the FDA’s Sun Safety for Infants Guide here.
  • Try to avoid being exposed to the sun during its harshest hours (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
  • Buy fragrance free products.
  • Be aware that products labeled with the Skin Cancer Foundation’s “seal of recommendation” can only receive the endorsement if their manufacturer donates $10,000 to become a member of the foundation.
  • Avoid product with oxybenzone, as the chemical may disrupt hormones.
  • Avoid products that contain vitamin A or retinol. The FDA is still investigating their effects, but studies show vitamin A and retinol may increase sun sensitivity.