Sunscreen Facts

By: Magdalenne M. Corso, MD, FAAP

Everyone seems to love sunshine and it certainly has a benefit on our moods.  It is also important for vitamin D synthesis by the skin.  However, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun causes sunburn, ages the skin, and causes skin cancer.

Everyone, regardless of skin type, should wear sunscreen when outdoors to reduce the risk of skin cancer.  The risk of skin cancer is cumulative.  So exposure during childhood adds up and may lead to skin cancer later. Moles show up as you age due to repeated sun exposure.  Some of these moles may turn to skin cancer.

It is important to choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB protection.  By the end of 2013 FDA regulations will make this a requirement for all sunscreens. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding the use of sunscreens in infants under 6 months..  It is better to dress the infant in clothes with long sleeves and a hat.  But if your baby cannot be fully covered, a small amount of SPF 15 sunscreen may be applied to the exposed areas such as the face and the back of the hands.

When choosing a sunscreen, look for the main ingredients of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.  These are barriers that cover the skin and deflect UV rays.  They tend to be less irritating and absorbed less by the skin than other ingredients which chemically convert UV rays).

Although there is not much of a difference in protection between SPF 15, 30, or 50, it is recommended to use an SPF 30.  The reason for this is that most people do not apply enough sunscreen so the higher SPF of 30 makes up for that.

How safe are sunscreens?  There have been studies that show that the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do not reach the living cells deep in the skin.  These particles stay on the outermost layer of the skin made up of nonviable skin cells.  There is no evidence showing that sunscreen gets absorbed into the body through the skin.

Here are the main take home points:

1. Every skin type needs sunscreen to reduce risk of skin cancer.

2. Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30.

3. Apply liberally (about 1 ounce or 1 shot glass full for an average adult) 15-30 minutes   before sun exposure.

4. Reapply every 2 hours.  If swimming, reapply every 40-80 minutes.

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