The Truth About Sunscreen
The sunscreen shelves in stores offer a confusing array of creams, lotions and sprays. That will get easier after December, when new Food and Drug Administration sunscreen product labeling and testing rules go into effect. Until then, MetroHealth dermatologist David R. Crowe, MD, has some tips for choosing sun protection.
First and foremost, “You can’t take what’s on the labels as the truth,’’ said Dr. Crowe. “Manufacturers have their own definitions of terms such as ‘broad spectrum’ and ‘waterproof ‘ and hopefully this will be fully evaluated and standardized with the new FDA regulations.“
It helps to understand what some terms mean, including:
- SPF: The SPF number indicates how well a sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and sunburn.
- Broad spectrum: This term indicates protection from ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B, both of which contribute to increased risk of skin cancer.
Dr. Crowe recommends looking for a broad spectrum sunscreen with a SPF between 15 and 30. “There’s no reason to go higher than 30 unless you have a condition which renders you more vulnerable to ultraviolet light.’’
Dr. Crowe said consumers should look for labels which include avobenzone or ecamsule for UVA protection, often in a photostabilized combination with a UVB-protective compound.
Sunscreen needs to be on for 15 to 20 minutes before you are protected, said Dr. Crowe. And if you go into the water, reapply it as soon as you are out. Until more studies are performed, he said no sunscreens can be considered water-resistant, despite claims on current labels.
For infants and children, Dr. Crowe recommends using sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide which reflect rather than absorb UV light and protect against UVA and UVB rays. These are also excellent products for use by adults.
He suggests using creams or lotions rather than sprays because coverage with sprays can be incomplete. And if the bottle is one or more years old, replace it.
Regular sunscreen use has been shown to reduce the risk of squamous cell cancer (highly treatable, about 16 percent of skin cancers) and potentially basal cell cancer (highly treatable, 80 percent of skin cancers) and melanoma (potentially deadly, 4 percent of skin cancers).
Clothing is helpful in shielding most areas of the body, but if you can see light through it, you are getting ultraviolet exposure, said Dr. Crowe. A white T shirt, for instance, only has an SPF of about 7. Aim for darker clothing which is opaque and has a tight weave.