Question of the Week

June 2, 2009


The warnings are not new, and as summer approaches, the messages about the dangers of the sun increase.

"Harmful rays from the sun, sunlamps and tanning beds may cause:

While the cautions have typically been partnered with advice about sunscreen, there is new research to support that traditional sunscreens (which provide a chemical filter rather than a physical barrier) may not be enough to protect against all types of sun damage.

"[T]hose familiar cautions have some fresh research behind them--including news of a damaging type of sunlight other than UVA and UVB ... Ultraviolet light aside, infrared radiation in sunlight increases levels of free radicals and collagen-destroying enzymes in the skin, according to Peter Schroeder of the Institute for Environmental Health Research at Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf in Germany. ... Dark clothing and sunscreens with physical blockers (such as titanium dioxide) might also help, but those with chemical filters provide no infrared shield, he says."

The chemical filters that most sunscreens contain typically only provide UVB protection. Unless a sunscreen specifically mentions its level of UVA protection, it most likely doesn't have any.

"UVA and UVB are types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun. Although the atmosphere's ozone layer shields us from most of this radiation, the UV light that gets through can cause problems. UVB light is primarily responsible for sunburn. UVA light penetrates the skin more than UVB light does, and causes tanning. Both types of UV light contribute to premature skin aging, skin cancer, and other types of skin damage. Currently, sunscreen labels are required to carry a "Sunburn Protection Factor" (SPF) value that informs potential users how well the product protects against UVB light."

The SPF does tell if a sunscreen (when applied properly) will protect the user from sunburn (caused by UVB light). Since sunlight contains more than just UVB light, many think that the SPF labels are giving consumers a false sense of security.

"Federal officials suggest capping them at 50, but now, 'SPF creep' has hit triple digits, with Neutrogena's SPF 100+ sun block, leading some dermatologists to complain that this is merely a numbers game that confuses consumers. ... A sunscreen's SPF, or sun protection factor, measures how much the product shields the sun's shorter-wave ultraviolet B rays, known as UVB radiation, which can cause sunburn. Twenty years ago, 15 was the highest one. Then, 30 became the standard. Now, the most popular is 30. But we also have 50, 75 and that 100 SPF that was just launched. Using 100 instead of 50 mean doesn't mean you're getting double the protection, Ashton pointed out. And a rating of 100 doesn't mean it blocks out 100 percent of the sun's rays. 'All it does," she explained, "is tell you how long you can be outside without burning. So 100 would be 100 times longer than if you didn't have protection on.' There isn't such a thing as 100 percent protection."
CBS News

Even with the a sunscreen that claims the user can stay out in the sun 100 times longer before burning, proper use of sunscreen still requires that it be reapplied every two hours. Additionally, while there may be no visible signs of burning caused by UVB light, that does not mean that the UVA light and infrared radiation in sunlight are not causing unseen damage that will later show up as dark spots, wrinkles, and/ or skin cancer.

The only way to completely block 100 percent of the damaging light from the sun is for people to stay inside or have a physical barrier between the sun and their skin.

When a physical barrier is not an option, understanding the labeling and using sunscreen correctly is key for proper protection.

"Because a lot of sunscreens rub off or don't stay put, dermatologists advise reapplication every two hours or after swimming or sweating. The key here is not the SPF, but how you're using sunscreen. Are you applying it right? The amount is very important. To get the SPF on a bottle, you must apply the amount of a shot glass. If you use half as much, you're getting half the SPF. When you put it on is also important: Twenty minutes before sun exposure is ideal. And how often you reapply is really crucial for avoiding sun damage and staying protected."
CBS News

With concerns about confusing labeling and UVA damage, the FDA is instituting a new rating system to help consumers better understand the protection levels offered by various sunscreens.

"Under the proposed regulation, a UVA star rating would be prominently displayed on sunscreen labels, near the SPF rating. 'For more than 30 years, consumers have been able to identify the level of UVB protection provided by sunscreens using only sunburn protection factor or SPF values,' said Andrew C. von Eschenbach, M.D., Commissioner, Food and Drugs. Under this proposal, 'consumers will also now know the level of UVA protection in sunscreens, which will help them make informed decisions about protecting themselves and their children against the harmful effects of the sun.' With the proposed UVA rating system

  • One star will represent low UVA protection
  • Two stars, medium protection
  • Three stars, high protection
  • Four stars, the highest UVA protection available in an over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen product.
  • If a sunscreen product does not rate at least one star, FDA is proposing that its labeling bear a 'no UVA protection' marking on the front label, near the SPF value."

Consumers can also expect to find more information about sun safety on their bottles of sunscreen when the new regulations come into practice.

"In addition to the new rating system, FDA wants sunscreen labels to advise consumers that using a sunscreen is just one way they can protect themselves against the sun. Limiting time in the sun and wearing protective clothing as part of a comprehensive sun protection regimen are other recommendations that would be prominently displayed on labels. Using sunscreens liberally and reapplying frequently would also be advised. FDA also wants to make changes regarding protection against UVB light. The agency has proposed amending its existing rule on UVB products to increase the maximum sunburn protection factor from SPF 30+ to SPF 50+."

Additionally, when looking to protect themselves from the sun, people should remember that not all parts of their body that need protection can be covered in sunscreen.

"Sunlight reflecting off snow, sand or water further increases exposure to UV radiation, increasing your risk of developing eye problems such as cataracts. Long hours on the beach or in the snow without adequate eye protection also can result in a short-term condition known as photokeratitis, or reversible sunburn of the cornea. This painful condition--also known as 'snow blindness'--can cause temporary loss of vision.

  • When buying sunglasses, look for a label that specifically offers 99-100% UV protection. This assures that the glasses block both forms of UV radiation.
  • Eyewear should be labeled 'sunglasses.' Be wary of dark or tinted eyewear sold as fashion accessories that may provide little or no protection from UV or visible light. ...
  • People who wear contact lenses that offer UV protection should still wear sunglasses.
  • Consider that light can still enter from the sides of sunglasses. Those that wrap all the way around the temples can help.
  • Children should wear real sunglasses--not toy sunglasses--that indicate the UV protection level. Polycarbonate lenses are the most shatter-resistant."

Nothing is perfect. Clothing or sunscreens that offer a physical barrier from the sun are best, and sunglasses that offer protection from the sun (not just a tint to make things look darker) should be worn.

"EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] recommends some simple ways to stay safe in the sun. Remember, Slip, Slop, Slap and Wrap and plan activities away from the midday sun.

  • Slip on a shirt.
  • Slop on sunscreen (SPF 15 or higher).
  • Slap on a hat.
  • Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them from ultraviolet light.
    Environmental Protection Agency

Even when using sunscreen--and taking of other precautionary measures--damage from the sun is still possible.

"Check your skin regularly for signs of skin cancer. Look for changes in the size, shape, color or feel of birthmarks, moles and spots. If you find any changes or find sores that are not healing, see your doctor.

  • Look at the back of your neck and scalp with the help of a hand mirror.
  • Look at your body--front, back and sides--in the mirror.
  • Bend your elbows and look at the undersides of your arms.
  • Look at the backs of your legs and feet.
  • Check parts that are hard to see--like your back--with a hand mirror."

Questions of the Week:
What should you, your peers, and your family members know about the potential skin damage that can be caused by sun or tanning bed exposure? What precautions are important to reduce sun damage? What misconceptions do you think those around you have as to the effectiveness (and proper application) of sunscreen? How can you know if a sunscreen is offering chemical or physical protection? How can you tell how much protection you are getting from a sunscreen that provides chemical protection from the sun?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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