Know Your Sunscreen

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I can still remember my mother slathering on sun tanning oil when I was a child, hoping I’d get a faster tan. These days we’re all horrified at the thought of accelerated tanning and use sunscreen to keep us safe from sun damage, and the skin deterioration and cancers sun exposure can cause.

Until just a few years ago, most sunscreens only protected against sunburns, not tanning, which also causes skin damage and cancer. New sunscreen labeling regulations go into effect in 2012, and already a slew of new broader-spectrum sun protection products have hit the market. Here we take a look at how best to avoid damage from the sun while you are out enjoying the summer weather.

Why Tanning is Dangerous”¦

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, whose wavelengths are shorter and therefore more intense than visible light, is a proven human carcinogen. It is the primary cause of skin cancers, the most common form of cancer in humans, and plays a key role in the deadliest skin cancer — melanoma. Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon, according to the American Cancer Society.

Since 1944, sunscreens have offered protection from sunburn, primarily caused by ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun. UVB radiation does not penetrate into the skin as deeply as UVA radiation, which causes tanning as well as cancer. Until recently, most sunscreen users thought that the burn was dangerous, but that tanning was OK. We now know that UVA, which causes the tan, causes cumulative damage over time. A tan results from injury to the skin's DNA; the skin darkens in an imperfect attempt to prevent further DNA damage, which can lead to cancer.

Ironically, use of sunscreens that only blocked UVB radiation, common until a few years ago, is now thought to be responsible for the continued rise in skin cancers in the U.S., since UVB-only sunscreens allowed users to remain in the sun much longer without a burn. Longer time in the sun meant more exposure to UVA. Since both UVA and UVB play an important role in premature skin aging, eye damage (including cataracts and macular degeneration), and skin cancers, the lack of an alarming (and painful) sunburn meant we spent more time in the sun and absorbed much more UVA than we would have otherwise.

Read the Label”¦

It is important to purchase broad-spectrum sunscreen, which offers protection from both UVA and UVB. Read the label before you buy. New Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations will standardize effectiveness testing and labeling for sunscreens sold in the U.S., bringing our requirements more in line with those in Europe, which have long been stricter. But don’t expect help this summer. The FDA recently extended the compliance dates from June until December to “avert a shortage of sunscreen in the upcoming months.”

To ensure you get the most from your sunscreen, follow the FDA’s guidelines:

  • Use sunscreen lotions with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
  • Apply evenly to all uncovered skin, especially your lips, nose, ears, neck, hands, and feet.
  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going out in the sun.
  • If you don't have much hair, apply sunscreen to the top of your head, or wear a hat.
  • Reapply at least every two hours, or after swimming.
  • Give babies and children extra care in the sun. Ask a health care professional before applying sunscreen to children under 6 months old.
  • Apply sunscreen to children older than 6 months every time they go outside.

Also be sure to check the sunscreen's expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.

To best protect yourself from the sun generally, follow the guidelines established by The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention:

  • Do not burn or tan — limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest. Even on an overcast day, up to 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can get through the clouds. Remember that glass, including car windows, does not block UVA.
  • Seek shade.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing.
  • Generously apply broad-spectrum sunscreen — read the label and ensure your sunscreen offers protection from both UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Use extra protection near water, snow, and sand, where the sun will reflect back.
  • Get vitamin D safely — get sun exposure in 15-minute increments during non-peak sun hours to allow the body to produce its essential vitamin D.

Do enjoy the sun this summer, just do it with the right sun protection. Check with your healthcare provider for any skin concerns or adverse reactions to sun exposure or sunscreens.


Rebecca Taggart is a San Francisco-based writer and yoga instructor.


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