As we head outdoors in the sunny summer months it is important to protect ourselves from the harmful rays of the sun. The multitude of options available for sun protection can be overwhelming. Additionally, many consumers are unsure of why it is necessary to protect the skin from the sun. Furthermore, there are concerns regarding the safety of specific ingredients in sunscreens.

One of the most important reasons to use sunscreen is to prevent the occurrence of skin cancer.

Skin cancer incidence is increasing and there are over 3.5 million new cases each year.  More common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. These skin cancers can occur in all ethnic backgrounds, however, they are more common in persons of lighter skin color. There are other reasons for skin cancers to develop, including viruses, carcinogens, and genetic cancer syndromes.  However, one of the most preventable causes of skin cancer is UV light from the sun. In addition to skin cancer, sun exposure can cause premature signs of aging such as brown spots and wrinkles.

Ultraviolet light consists of UVA and UVB.  Sunburn is primarily caused by UVB.  UVA causes signs of aging. It is also a major cause of sun sensitivity while taking medications (e.g., hydrochlorothiazide, doxycycline, levofloxacin). Both UVB and UVA can cause skin cancer.

FDA introduces new guidelines on sunscreens

In a move to help consumers make better decisions about sunscreens, the FDA has introduced new guidelines on sunscreens and product labeling. Under the new guidelines, only sunscreens that provide UVA and UVB protection will be labeled “Broad Spectrum” and “SPF 15” (or higher).  This is in contrast to previous labeling which only included a SPF (sun protection factor). The SPF number denotes the amount of protection against UVB or sunburn and not UVA. With the new labeling, sunscreens with a “Broad Spectrum” designation will protect against UVA and UVB. A higher SPF number will indicate a longer amount of time that the sunscreen will be protective. Additionally, manufacturers will only be allowed to label the sunscreens as water-resistant, either to 40 or 80 minutes. Sunscreens with new labels should be on shelves this summer.

Active components in sunscreen include physical (inorganic) and chemical (organic) ingredients.  The major inorganic agents include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.  Inorganic sunscreens work by deflecting light rays.  Organic sunscreen ingredients protect the skin by absorbing UV light. Examples of chemical sunscreen components include PABA and oxybenzone.  One sunscreen product often contains several inorganic or organic ingredients to provide broad protection.

You can protect yourself against skin cancer by using sun protective clothing and reapplying sunscreen every two hours or more often if swimming or perspiring.  Also, avoid the mid day sun (10AM-3PM) when sun is strongest. When outdoors, wear protective clothing, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. Most importantly, early detection of skin cancer can be achieved by doing a self skin exam and visiting your physician for a skin check on a regular basis.