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Sunscreens aren't a license to stay in the sun longer

June 20, 2016

Today, June 20, may be the first day of summer, but with some past days reaching high into the 80s, sun worshippers have already hit the beaches and local parks soaking up the warmth of the sun – along with its deadly rays.

Unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer by using sunscreen. UV exposure and sunburns, particularly during childhood, are major risk factors for the disease. UVA and UVB rays both come from the sun. UVA rays were once considered “safer” and thought more as contributing to premature aging of the skin, wrinkles and sunspots. However, research over the years now shows that UVA rays may play a more significant role in contributing to and initiating the development of skin cancers. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and damage to skin cells, resulting in skin cancer.

“Do not burn,” said Dr. Richard Arenas, chief, Surgical Oncology in the Baystate Regional Cancer Program. “We know that each time you sunburn, especially children, you significantly increase your risk of developing skin cancer.”

Three types of skin cancer

The two most common types of skin cancerbasal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous and causes the most deaths.

By now – with the many educational campaigns over the years on how to protect yourself and others from the sun’s harmful rays – most of us should know to seek shade, especially between the hours of 10 am to 2 pm, when the sun’s rays are the strongest, and to wear protective clothing such as long-sleeved shirts, pants and a wide-brimmed hat.

So, what about sunscreen and the claims by some that “dangerous” chemicals contained in some of them do more harm to the body than good?

“Current data suggests sunscreen is safe and does, indeed, prevent sunburn, as well as reduces your risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging,” said Dr. Arenas, who noted that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

Furthermore, the American Academy of Dermatology has stated that no published studies have demonstrated unequivocally that sunscreen – whose ingredients must first be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – is toxic and hazardous to one’s health.

What to look for in a sunscreen

When shopping for a sunscreen – and there are plenty to choose from on the marketplace – Dr. Arenas said consumers should check beforehand to make sure the sunscreen they are selecting has:

• an SPF 30 or greater.

• broad-spectrum protection.

• water resistance.

SPF stands for Skin Protection Factor and measures the amount of protection from the sun’s UVB rays you can expect from your sunscreen.

“The American College of Dermatology has long recommended using a sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 or higher. You want a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection, meaning it will protect you from both of the sun’s harmful UVA rays and UVB rays. And, you want to make sure that it is water resistant and doesn’t disappear from your skin too quickly due to sweat or going in the water,” said Dr. Arenas.

Read and follow the directions

“There are numerous products out there now which identify their SPF, and the sun protection factor really gives you an idea on how much protection you are getting. What is important is to read the directions and apply it regularly as recommended. And, I think people often forget that it has to be applied often in order to get the best results,” he added.

The American Academy of Dermatology offers the following suggestions concerning how much sunscreen to use and how often to apply it:

• Use enough sunscreen to generously coat all skin that will be not be covered by clothing.

• Follow the guideline of “1 ounce, enough to fill a shot glass,” which dermatologists consider the amount needed to cover the exposed areas of the body. Adjust the amount of sunscreen applied depending on your body size.

• For the lips, where skin cancers can also form, apply a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

• Apply sunscreen approximately every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating, according to the directions on the bottle.

• Don’t wait until going outdoors, apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before going out in the sunshine.

Is more better?

While the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using an SPF of 30, is more better?

“You can never protect yourself 100 percent from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. An SPF of 30 will block about 97 percent of UVB rays, while jumping up to an SPF of 50 will only offer one percent more of protection,” said Dr. Arenas, who noted that the FDA considers SPFs higher than 50 to provide no significant increase in protection.

“Once again, I can’t stress enough the importance of thoroughly applying and reapplying sunscreen in accordance with the directions on the bottle, especially after swimming or sweating,” he added.

Still more to consider, Consumer Reports in May released a study on sunscreen products noting 43 percent of the 65 tested had less SPF than stated on the label, often falling short by 10-15 points. As a result, Consumer Reports suggest “looking for a chemical sunscreen that is at least SPF 40 because that will give you the best chance of getting SPF 30.”

Are sunscreen products safe for babies?

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends:

• For babies younger than 6 months – Use sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face and the backs of the hands, but keeping babies younger than six months out of direct sunlight and dressing them in protective clothing is the first line of defense.

• For babies older than 6 months – Apply to all areas of the body, but be careful around the eyes. If your baby rubs sunscreen into his or her eyes, wipe the eyes and hands clean with a damp cloth. If the sunscreen irritates his or her skin, try a different brand or try a sunscreen stick or sunscreen or sunblock with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, talk with your child’s doctor.

In addition to remembering to use a sunscreen, Dr. Arenas suggests checking the UV Index daily, which he said is especially important when sending kids outdoors.

Check out the UV Index

The UV Index, which forecasts the strength of the sun’s harmful rays, provides important information to help you plan your outdoor activities in ways that prevent sun overexposure. The higher the number, the greater the chance of sun damage with 6-7 being in the high range, 8-10 very high, and 11+ extreme. The UV Index forecast is issued daily by the National Weather Service and EPA. Visit

“Remember, using a sunscreen doesn’t give you license to stay in the sun for all hours of the day. You’re first line of defense is still staying out of the sun as much as possible and keeping covered up,” said Dr. Arenas.