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MAIN Arrow to HealthHealth Arrow to DiseaseDiseases Arrow to CancerCancer Arrow to MelanomaMelanoma Arrow to SunscreenSunscreens

Different types of sunscreen productsMay is Melanoma Awareness month. With warm weather and sunny days ahead, most of us will be arming ourselves with all the essentials of spring and summer – flip flops, shorts, sunglasses, sun hats and, of course, sunscreen.

Sunscreen protection options have become more plentiful than ever, including formulations offering a smoother application or enhanced protection from ultraviolet (UV) light. Fortunately, dermatologists can help you sort through the sunscreen clutter – separating marketing hype from proven science.

Dermatologist Zoe D. Draelos, MD, FAAD, from High Point, N.C., recently discussed the advances that are making sunscreens more effective and more cosmetically acceptable, including higher Sun Protection Factors (SPFs), UVA protection, smaller particles of active ingredients, and enhanced stability during sun exposure.

“Sunscreens have really evolved over the years, as we now have a variety of formulations – from creams and gels to lotions and sprays – that more effectively protect the skin from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays,” said Dr. Draelos.

SPF number - guarding against UVA rays

“In the past, a common complaint was that sunscreens felt too sticky or gritty when applied and therefore people avoided applying or reapplying them. But now, more refined formulations have been developed that make sunscreens smoother to the touch and less greasy – making them easier to wear by themselves or under makeup.”

The SPF number on sunscreens largely reflects the product’s ability to screen out UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are of shorter wavelength, and primarily linked to sunburn and skin cancer.

Importantly, the FDA also acknowledged that sunscreens should reflect their ability to provide protection from UVA rays. UVA rays are longer UV wavelengths that can pass through window glass and penetrate deeper into the skin. These rays are primarily linked to premature aging and wrinkling of the skin, but the latest scientific evidence indicates that they may also contribute to the development of skin cancer.

“It’s important to note that an SPF of 50 doesn’t offer twice the UV protection of an SPF of 25, but a higher SPF can be beneficial for people with very fair complexions or in instances where a person is going on vacation to a very tropical or sun-intense climate,” stated Dr. Draelos.

Dr. Draelos also indicated that the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy) recommends a minimum of SPF15 regardless of skin type, and also commented on the importance of selecting a sunscreen that offers UVA protection as well.

“Without the FDA’s UVA rating system, this selection is more difficult, but consumers should look for products that indicate ‘broad-spectrum’ on the label or read the active ingredients listed on the back panel." Dr. Draelos noted that a list of active ingredients to look for in broad-spectrum sunscreen can be found on the Academy’s Sunscreen Fact Sheet.

The future of sunscreen

An important area of sunscreen improvement is the development of formulations that are more photostable. As Dr. Draelos explained, active ingredients in sunscreen absorb or scatter UV radiation. But in doing so the sunscreen breaks down and becomes less effective, essentially decreasing its SPF and level of UV protection.

This is one of the reasons that sunscreen needs to be reapplied frequently. In photostabilized sunscreen, a chemical is added to the formulation to absorb more UV radiation – allowing the sunscreen molecule to remain unaltered and absorb or scatter UV rays for a longer period of time.

Combination products containing both insect repellent and sunscreen have become increasingly popular in recent years. Dr. Draelos explained that while these products offer the convenience of a single application, some scientific evidence indicates that the combination may actually decrease the SPF, and therefore the effectiveness, of the sunscreen component of the product.

In addition, Dr. Draelos noted that there are issues with the application of these products to achieve optimal protection against both biting insects and UV rays. “Although sunscreens should be applied liberally at least every two hours, many insect repellents should only be applied every six hours, and sparingly to exposed skin,” said Dr. Draelos. “Applying a combination product too frequently may pose the risk of insect repellent toxicity, but too few applications may cause photodamage from the lack of UV protection.”

Dr. Draelos added that other UV filters are currently being considered by the FDA as new active ingredients. “The FDA regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs, establishing the conditions under which these products are recognized as safe and effective. If these new active ingredients are approved, they should offer broader UV protection and provide an opportunity for superior formulations in future sunscreens. The availability of additional UV agents means you can do a better job protecting your skin against damaging UV rays.”

Sunscreen How To's

Dr. Draelos concluded by reminding that, in addition to wearing sunscreen, the Academy recommends:

• Generously applying water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 that provides broad-spectrum protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays to all exposed skin. Re-apply every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. Look for the AAD SEAL OF RECOGNITION on products that meet these criteria.

• Wearing protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, where possible.

• Seeking shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.

• Protecting children from sun exposure by playing in the shade, using protective clothing, and applying sunscreen.

• Using extra caution near water, snow and sand as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun which can increase your chance of sunburn.

• Getting vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements. Don’t seek the sun.

• Avoiding tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look like you’ve been in the sun, consider using a sunless self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.

• Checking your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.

Editor’s Note: A list of broad-spectrum sunscreen ingredients can be found on the Academy’s Sunscreen Fact Sheet.

Newswise — For more information, contact the Academy at 1-888-462-DERM (3376) or

More about sun protection around the Web:

How does sunscreen work?

What kind of sunscreen is best for babies?

What's the Best Sunscreen?

This information is intended as reference and not as medical advice.
All treatment decisions should be made by medical professionals.

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