The waters surrounding sunscreen are murky as we approach summer. Many of the top scientists disagree on what provides the best protection, the FDA has its hands full trying to issue new and effective regulations, and sunscreen product labels are a fireworks display of marketing. Adding to the confusion is the growing chant: “Sunscreen causes cancer!” At the end of the day, the consumer is left standing in aisle three trying to decipher how to choose an effective sunscreen.
In a nutshell, there are two types of ultraviolet rays of concern to our skin: UVB and UVA. UVB rays are primarily responsible for reddening or burning of the outer layers of skin and cellular damage. UVB damage from sunburn can cause skin cancer. UVA rays, the “tanning” rays, are deeper penetrating and responsible for long term skin aging, wrinkles and generation of free radicals. UVA rays are now believed to be responsible for the most aggressive form of skin cancer, Melanoma. To easily remember the effects of the two types of ultraviolet rays, think: UVB-burning/sun burn and UVA-aging/tan.
Fact: Skin cancer rates continue to rise as does the use of sunscreen. There may indeed be contributing factors that have nothing to do with sunscreen or its application. That said, the single most important job of an effective sunscreen in 2011 is to attain and maintain balanced Broad Spectrum protection. Broad Spectrum protection refers to a product’s ability to effectively mitigate the harmful effects of both UVB and UVA rays.
There are two areas of concern or contributing factors all US consumers should be aware of.
First: There are no regulation requirements with regard to UVA protection. The SPF number (Sun Protection Factor) only correlates to UVB protection and has no bearing on UVA protection. Furthermore, there is no standardized rating system for UVA protection in place – a cause for potentially misleading claims. Often retail shelves offer sunscreens with excessively high SPF numbers, but relatively weak UVA protection.
Second: The FDA mandated SPF tests for sunscreen are conducted in a controlled environment using a specific amount of product, whereas the average sunscreen user often applies one quarter of this necessary amount of formula. This common mistake can reduce protection to below SPF 5, rather than the SPF 30 shown on the label.
As long as consumers continue to choose high SPF number sunscreens with relatively weak UVA protection and apply inadequate amounts of even the best broad-spectrum sunscreen product, skin cancer rates will continue to rise. In both cases, a false sense of security will result in excess amounts of UVA radiation and overall poor protection.
How To Choose Sunscreen Effectively
1. Choose Broad Spectrum UVA Protection. Don’t let the term “Broad Spectrum” on the label make the sale. Look deeper. There are 18 FDA approved active ingredients in sunscreen that provide protection. While many of these offer UVB protection, only four offer UVA protection. Look for UVA active ingredients: Avobenzone (Parsol), Mexoryl SX, Titanium Dioxide, and Zinc Oxide. Of these four, Zinc Oxide is the only single, broad spectrum active. Zinc Oxide physically blocks the entire range of UVA & UVB. Look for Zinc Oxide percentages to be over 18%.
2. Use SPF 30(+), beware lower or higher numbers. It is a widely accepted that SPF 30 is the benchmark needed to provide adequate UVB protection. In controlled testing, SPF 30 sunscreens filter 97% of UVB rays while SPF 50 only filters 1% more at 98% and SPF 100 would only offer 2% more at 99%. In real-life applications, it is very unlikely that filtering more than 97% of UVB rays is plausible. Furthermore, extremely high SPF claims may provide a false sense of security while possibly doubling the amount of chemicals needed in the formulas.
3. Choose “Very Water Resistant,” a proven track record, and use caution with spray on products. The term Very Water Resistant is regulated by the FDA. It represents a sunscreen’s ability to remain effective after 80 minutes exposed to water, while Water Resistant refers to 40 minutes. Waterproof and All Day Protection claims are misleading. A product that is Very Water Resistant will likely offer better sweat resistance. Ultimately, a Very Water Resistant sunscreen that has performed well for you in the past is a wise choice in the future. Use caution with spray or powder sunscreens, the applicators expel excess amounts of chemical ingredients which may be inhaled and pose a potential safety hazard.
How To Use Sunscreen Effectively
1. Sunscreen is the last line of defense, not the first. It is imperative that a complete approach toward sun protection is used, contrary to popular belief; no sunscreen alone will keep you totally protected. It is always suggested to stay out of peak sun between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM, seek shade and wear protective clothing and hats. Avoid extended periods of exposure, never allow exposure to sunburn and avoid a deep tan, as both UVB and UVA rays cause skin cancer.
2. Apply the correct amount. In order for sunscreen to be effective as advertised, the correct amount must be applied. The FDA regulates that all sunscreens must be SPF tested in the amount of 2mg of formula per square centimeter of skin. What this means is that an adult wearing only shorts must use one full ounce of sunscreen per application to cover all the exposed skin properly. Approximately a teaspoon size amount is needed to adequately protect the face, ears and neck. Using less than the correct amount drastically reduces the sunscreen’s ability to protect the skin.
3. Apply early, reapply often. The vast majority of sunscreens require early application, at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure to be effective. Reducing this time period will reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen. It is imperative to reapply sunscreen often, at least every ninety minutes during long periods of sun exposure. Regardless how “Water Resistant” a formula claims to be, it is wise to reapply after any water exposure, sweating, or towel drying. Applying early and reapplying often will give the sunscreen the best chance to perform effectively.
Brian Guadagno is the Founder of RAW Elements Physical Eco-Protection Sunscreen.