Don't Get Burned by Sunscreens

Watching the crowd today at the Indy 500 in 90 degree heat with open skies, many no doubt wished that they had a better sunscreen. Perhaps some wished they had some sunscreen, any sunscreen for that matter. But for those who had the forethought to pull some sunscreen out of the closet or buy some on the way to the race, they probably couldn’t tell the difference between the numerous brands. The usual public mindset is that they are pretty much all the same and slathering on something is better than nothing at all.

What most people don’t know is that most sunscreens only protect against ultraviolet B rays. Most sunscreens don’t provide sufficient protection against skin damage that is caused by a much larger percent of the ultraviolet spectrum, ultraviolet A rays. (UVA) It is these UVA rays that contribute to wrinkling, freckling, brown spots and skin cancer since they are the same strength all year, all day long. They penetrate glass and is why your left face and left arm frequently develop greater skin damage from the sun exposure gotten during decades of driving.

While some sunscreen manufacturers now carry combined UVA and UVB protection ingredients, the lack of FDA regulation makes their claims confusing and often misleading. One would think that the same federal agency that regulates medical drugs would have long ago set standards for sunscreen performance and ingredients. But that is not the case. This is particularly peculiar given that every other industrialized nation uses UVA protection with specific guidelines. The FDA has stated that they will be releasing sunscreen recommendations in the fall. But until then another summer will pass with most people not knowing what they are actually putting on their skin.

If you are a teenager or in your 20s, the thought of skin cancer is as remote as the need for Botox or developing an unflattering neck wattle. But recent statistics show that more than 2 million people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer per year. This is an almost shocking two to three times increase from just twenty years ago. And most of these are directly related to sun exposure. The seeds of these skin cancers are sewn at the very age when one thinks the least about it.

The myths of sunscreen claims are numerous. Besides not knowing whether they really are as effective at blocking the sun rays as they state, many other label claims are more than just misleading. Such proclamations as ‘all day protection’, ‘waterproof’ and ‘sweatproof’ have no scientific basis and are simply not true.

The only reliable sunscreen claim is SPF (sun protection factor) which  blocks UVB rays. But manufacturers use this well recognized sunblock factor to sell more sunscreen. With common SPF numbers of 15, 30, 45 and greater, one would logically think that the sunburn protection would be substantially better as the number gets higher. But the truth is that SPF 15 blocks 94% UVB and  SPF 30 blocks 97% UVB. Beyond that there is no real improvement in sun ray blocking effect.

Until the FDA regulates sunscreen, the best approach is to use a dual protection UVB/UVA combination that is SPF 30 rated. UVA blockers avobenzene and meroxyl are becoming more widely used now in these broader spectrum sunscreens and they may last up to five hours. Reapplication should be done if the one sweats heavily or goes swimming. They are certainly pricier than what most are used to paying for it but is worth it for not getting skin cancer. 

 Dr. Barry Eppley

Indianapolis, Indiana