The ‘Burning’ Truth about Sunscreen

There has been a lot of controversy in the past year about whether sunscreen is effective against skin cancer or not. It was even brought up that sunscreen potentially caused skin cancer. In 2012, the FDA implemented new guidelines for sunscreens on the market and how they can be labeled to let people know what they are buying and how protected they really are.

Sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher are the only sunscreens that can lower the risk of damage that causes aging and skin cancer. Sunscreens with SPF values less than 15 are only protective against sunburns. The FDA also suggested that sunscreen makers remove all products with SPF values higher than 50 because there is no proof that it works better than lower SPFs. People also tend to apply higher SPF sunscreens only once during the day, which makes that person more at risk for developing skin damage than those that reapply lower SPFs.

There are two types of harmful UV rays given off by the sun. UVA rays cause skin aging, while UVB rays cause sunburns. Sunscreens usually protect against UVB rays, but not UVA rays. Both are harmful and sunscreens should protect against both of them equally. Sunscreens that are labeled “broad spectrum” protect against both types of harmful sun rays. If a sunscreen is not labeled as a broad spectrum sunscreen, it means that it only protects against UVB rays.

Sunscreens often have words like “waterproof” or “sweatproof” on the label. These words are no longer acceptable. “Water resistant” is the only acceptable word on the label and the bottle must say how long an individual is protected while swimming or sweating. So far, 40 minutes or 80 minutes are the only two acceptable times to be on the label before reapplication is needed.

Sunscreens that include Vitamin A should also be avoided. Even though Vitamin A is good for us, it is not good when included in a sunscreen. There has been data that shows that applying Vitamin A to the skin and being in contact with the sun can increase your risk of developing tumors.

Avoid sunscreens that contain insect repellant. Insect repellant can be used before sunscreen if needed, but should not be included. Allow the insect repellant time to dry before applying sunscreen.

Although it has been brought up in the past year that sunscreen might actually cause cancer, it is more likely that the lack of reapplying sunscreen has lead to the rise in skin cancer. As long as consumers pay attention to the labels and follow the new FDA guidelines on sunscreens, these ideas that sunscreen causes cancer should go away. Sunscreen should not be the primary protection against skin cancer. To decrease the risk of cancer, limit sun exposure and wear protective clothing along with sunscreen when in the sun.

Excessive exposure to UV rays is the most common cause of melanoma. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can appear suddenly and progress rapidly. Roughly 73% of deaths from skin cancer are cause by melanoma.
It is treatable if detected early on, but it is usually fatal if spread to the internal organs. Melanoma is most common in people that were exposed to excessive sunlight in the first 10 to 18 years of life so that is why it is important to protect kids from the sun and use sunscreen when going out in the sun for extended periods.

Whitney Richman is an NDSU Pharmacy Student working with Amy Noeske, registered pharmacist at Mercy Hospital.

Your Health is coordinated by Mercy Hospital.