The Truth About Sunscreens

Integrative Clinical Pharmacist Scott Berliner, RPh

Did you know that until the year 2009 just 29 percent of all sunscreens provided protection against UVA rays? In 2009 that number increased to 70 percent so we are moving in the right direction. Even with added protection today, all sunscreens are not created equal.

The sun can be an amazing source of energy and vitamin D, but can also cause the kind of skin damage that leads to one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, melanoma. The rays of the sun produce both UVA and UVB bands of radiation; previous formulations only protected against UVB. It is UVB that causes painful sunburn. However, UVA rays have the ability to cause deeper issues with the skin that include skin damage, immune system problems and skin cancer. For this reason it is important to choose sunscreens that protect against both kinds of rays. The screening agent also needs to contain safe blocking agents that do not increase the toxins in your body.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require sun screening agents to block UVA. FDA regulations were drafted 31 years ago and have not changed substantially. There are many kinds of sun screening agents on the market that are incorporated into creams, lotions, and sprays that are then applied to the skin. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) did a recent study on 1,572 sunscreens and found that 3 out of 5 brands either did not protect the skin from the sun adequately or contained toxic chemicals. These included some of the most popular brands on the market . It’s important to shop carefully and read labels.

The “SPF” rating, which stands for Sun Protection Factor, indicates the product’s ability to protect you from UVB radiation only. It does not necessarily mean that it will protect you from UVA unless the product specifically states that it is broad spectrum and protects from both UVA and UVB. The FDA presently does not have a rating system for UVA protection. The actual SPF number is actually a rough approximation of how long you can stay in the sun after application. So a SPF of 15 means that you can stay in the sun 15 times longer than without it and get the same amount of radiation exposure. For example, if you burn in 10 minutes then the SPF 15 product should allow you to stay out for 150 minutes. This is quite variable depending on the person and the conditions.

It is most effective to apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before sun exposure, after being in the water, and certainly after a couple of hours of exposure. The EWG tested 70 sunscreens with SPFs that ranged from 55 to 100 but they only provided 1 to 2% more protection than the ones rated SPF 30. In other words maximum effectiveness was found in SPF30 labeled sunscreens.

The mineral based sunscreens like zinc and titanium are often the safest as they are physical blocks. However they may leave a cloudy hue on the skin. The EWG site lists all of their suggested blocks and rates most of the common sunscreens on the market.

Remember that when using a sun block you are blocking the body’s ability to make vitamin D so make sure to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes several times a week in the sun before applying sunscreen. Even with this you should have your vitamin D levels checked and you may still need supplementation.

Young infants do not develop melanin so they should be kept out of direct sunlight until after 6 months of age. Even then, young children are more susceptible to sun damage, so take extra caution and expose as little skin as possible to direct sun.

Avoid midday sun as much as reasonable or lather on a SPF 30 or greater sunscreen and repeat as needed and often. Artificial sunlight like sun lamps and tanning beds are particularly dangerous and dramatically increase the risk of melanoma.

As we witness the disintegration of Earth’s ozone layer, the power of the sun to cause skin damage and health issues is growing. Exercise caution during the summer months and become more educated about suntan lotions, sun blocks and their ingredients as you enjoy all the joys that summer has to offer.

Our Radiant Health Apothecary offers a variety of natural sun protection products.