Sunscreens and skin protection

  • Published
  • By Marilyn Leggett
  • Civilian Health Promotion Services
July is UV (Ultraviolet) Safety Month. UV rays from the sun can damage our eyes as well as cause serious problems for our skin.

Ultraviolet rays are a form of invisible energy given off by the sun, and there are three wavelengths of these: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA and UVB rays are those that damage the skin and can lead to skin cancers. UVC rays don't penetrate our atmosphere. Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers with more than one million skin cancers diagnosed in the United States each year.

Recently, new concerns have arisen regarding the safety and correct usage of sunscreens. According to a report from Harvard Medical School, in 1993, The Food and Drug Administration proposed new regulations for sunscreens but delays have occurred due to changing science, testing and labeling requirements, as well as public opinion. New rules were scheduled to go into effect in May, but the FDA postponed the target date to October of this year. The original guidelines were drafted in 1978 and have remained relatively unchanged since that time.

According to Washington D.C.'s Environmental Working Group, nearly one in eight sunscreens does not block UVA rays; while UVB is more carcinogenic, UVA rays also contribute to skin cancer. Under the new regulations sunscreens won't be required to block UVA but would need to state "No UVA protection" if the product doesn't.

Sun Protection Factor is a comparison between the time it takes the skin to turn red with and without sunscreen. For example, if a person normally experiences the onset of redness on unprotected skin after 10 minutes of exposure, an SPF-15 sunscreen would provide protection for 150 minutes. Years ago the FDA proposed SPF's be capped at 50; that cap may go up under new rules. Also, sun protection factor will be changed to sunburn protection factor since what it truly measures is protection along the UV spectrum.

It is found that most people use less than half the amount of sunscreen needed to get the SPF protection stated on the product label. Under new rules, labels would continue to say that sunscreen should be applied "liberally" or "generously" before sun exposure and new rules would emphasize the importance of reapplying products frequently, for example, every two hours or after swimming, sweating, or drying off with a towel.

Additional concerns exist as to the safety of sunscreen ingredients themselves or the formulations of ingredients currently being used. Zinc found in sun blocks may be composed of nanoparticles which are thought to potentially penetrate into the body; ingredients such as oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen, or retinol palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may be absorbed through the skin and cause problems according to the FDA.
For now, the recommendation is to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, minimum SPF 30 that blocks both UVB and UVA rays and apply it frequently and liberally according to label instructions.

Some additional guidelines: UV rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so plan activities around these times and, if you must be outdoors, shield your skin and eyes. UV rays reach the earth on cloudy days and can penetrate water. Sand and snow reflect sunlight, increasing the amount of UV radiation you may receive. When in the sun, wear clothing to protect as much skin as possible. Long-sleeved shirts in dark colors are more protective than, say, a white t-shirt. Dry fabric is more protective than wet fabric. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through as well. A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is ideal; a baseball cap can protect the front and top of the head but not the back of the neck or the ears, where skin cancers commonly develop.

Sunscreens should not be used on babies younger than six months, according to the American Cancer Society; they should be protected with hats, clothing, and minimizing exposure to sunlight. Sunless tanning products do not protect from UV damage. Wear sunglasses and make sure children use protective sunglasses, not toy sunglasses. Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps.

Discuss sunscreen safety with your doctor and visit the Environmental Working Group's 2010 Sunscreen Guide at or find out more at