Sunscreens & Sun Protective Measures

Sunscreens are an important part of sun protection. They do not replace other sun-protective activities, such as using sun-protective clothing or avoiding midday sun, but they have been shown to prevent both nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancer. We are often asked which is the best sunscreen, and our answer is always the same: “It is the one that you will use!”

All Sunscreens Are NOT Created Equal!

There are many different types of sunscreens. Sunscreens are generally divided into two main types: physical sunscreens that include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and chemical sunscreens that include compounds such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and benzophenone. It should be noted that all sunscreens formulations sold in the United States are safe and effective. Any information you receive about sunscreens causing cancer is not true. 

There has been recent controversy about chemical sunscreens because they are absorbed into the skin. We have known about this absorption into the skin for many years, and there are really no detrimental effects from it in either the literature or our professional opinion. The other controversial aspect of chemical sunscreens is that they have been banned by the state of Hawaii and may be banned by other beachfront states because it is felt that the chemical sunscreens may harm the coral reefs. Most experts feel that the coral reefs are being damaged largely because of climate change, but it is unknown if chemicals, such as sunscreen, contribute to that effect. Because of these controversies, our clinics often recommend a physical sunscreen when possible, particularly for children.

A High SPF Physical Sunscreen is Best

Physical sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and effectively act as a shield. They are not absorbed into the skin. Until recently, high SPFs were not possible with the two compounds that are generally thought of as physical sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These appropriations are nanoparticles, but because they are not absorbed, they seem to have little potential possibility to cause harm. We know from studies they are effective in preventing skin cancer. Some brand name examples of these we recommend are Neutrogena, Elta MD, etc.

Another point that needs explaining is SPF. SPF stands for “sun protective factor”, and it indicates how much longer a person wearing sunscreen can stay in the sun before they begin to burn than they would without using any sunscreen. Therefore, an SPF of 2 blocks 50% of the UVB/UVA rays, an SPF of 10 blocks 75%, and an SPF of 30 blocks 97%. You would think that blocking 97% of the rays would keep you from getting burned, but when placed in high-exposure situations, it has been shown that SPF 100 is better than SPF 50. We generally recommend that you find a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or above for regular use.

It has also been shown that patients use about half the amount of sunscreen that is needed in order to obtain the stated SPF. Therefore, if you are using an SPF 30 in the way that most individuals use it, you would be receiving an SPF of 15. To get the correct amount of sunscreen, each person would need to use a shot glass of sunscreen if they were dressed to go to the beach.  Areas often missed by patients when applying sunscreen are the back sides of necks, temples, ears, and the V of the neck. In addition, studies show that wearers of sunscreens have a tendency to protect their entire body less when wearing sunglasses. 

Sunscreen Doesn't Last Forever… Don’t Forget to Reapply

It should be noted that there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen. There are water resistant labels, but many of us recognize that it is difficult to protect yourself adequately with sunscreen alone when in the water. This is where sun protective clothing can become particularly important.

There are many different sunscreen formulations with different lotions, creams, light lotions, lip balms, and clear sprays. It should be noted that in the United States, spray sunscreens have become the number one selling sunscreen products. Generally, the way to use spray sunscreens is to spray the sunscreen on your hands then apply. Many people spray the sunscreen into the air; however, this can lead to inhaling microamounts of sunscreen, which would not be desirable.

It is important to remember that sunscreens are only part of a total sun protection plan. Other measures to prevent intense sun exposure, such as wearing wide brimmed hats, wearing sun protective clothing, and avoiding midday sun are necessary parts of the plan. If you have further questions or are interested in learning more about sunscreens, we are always happy to answer questions at the time of your visit.

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