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What You Need to Know about Sunscreen

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Skin Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

It is ingrained in humans to love sunlight. Since mankind's first wanderings from darkened caves, sun worship has been a fundamental ideology that many societies hold even to the present.

Unfortunately, sunlight can wreak havoc on our skin. The old saying, “get a tan, get a wrinkle” only tells part of the story.

The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate the skin causing tanned skin, hyper-pigmentation, freckles, sunspots, moles or actinic keratoses (rough, scaly patches), all signs of damage. As if it couldn’t get worse, it does: About 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of melanomas-the most deadly form of skin cancer— are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Writing for the National Institutes of Health, David R. Bickers, M.D., Director Skin Diseases Research Center Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals said once skin damage occurs, it’s likely permanent.

“Data exist to suggest that half of an individual's total lifetime UV ray exposure occurs by 18 years of age. Although various therapies to improve sun-damaged skin have been tried, including chemical peels, alpha-hydroxy acids and others, and the beneficial cosmetic effects of some of these treatments have received wide publicity, there are insufficient data demonstrating sustained improvement, reversibility of tissue pathology, or the preservation of normal skin function by those agents,” he wrote.

Sun protection is essential to prevent damaged skin and skin cancer, but how do you know which sunscreen to use? It has been a confusing matter, but new U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules announced this year will make choosing the right one easier. Although the rules don’t go into effect until summer 2012, some manufacturers are likely to comply with the rules immediately so products with new UV labeling standards could hit store shelves soon.

In the meantime, here’s the experts’ sun protection tips:

  • Choose an SPF 30 broad spectrum sunblock. It shields you from 98 percent of UVB rays that cause DNA damage and is responsible for sunburns. Buyer beware: Higher SPFs are a marketing ploy and will not provide more protection.
  • Check the ingredients and read the label. Look for products with broad spectrum protection on the label. These products protect you from the aging UVA rays as well as the burning UVB. Products formulated with physical screens like micronized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide provide better immediate protection than chemical blockers such as avobenzone and oxybenzone, which usually need 30 minutes to work, and by then, the damage could be done. Besides being effective immediately upon application, physical sunscreens are less prone to cause breakouts.
  • Avoid extended periods of sun exposure between the hours of 10:00 am and 4:00 pm when the sun's rays are at their strongest.
  • Apply sun protection at least every two hours, more often if you've gone swimming, exercised or toweled off.
  • Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas including the sensitive lips and ears.
  • Take a lesson from the British: Hats are fashion-forward additions to any wardrobe and a wide brimmed, tightly woven one provides an added layer of stylish protection for your face and eyes. Hats not only lower your risk of skin damage and cancer, but can also help keep you from developing adult macular degeneration later in life.
  • Choose sunglasses with 100 percent UV protection. Buyer Beware:Generously-sized wraparounds are the best choice.

A Word of Caution

Recent research suggested some unprotected time in the sun is necessary. That’s because those ultra-dangerous UVB rays also ironically provide the body with vitamin D, an important nutrient that helps protect against osteoporosis, heart disease and certain cancers.

One option is to get this essential nutrient by increasing your dietary intake of it. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish and fortified milk. If you opt for some unprotected sun exposure, how much do you really need to generate enough vitamin D to stay healthy? Most experts agree just 15 minutes a day is enough to get the job done. Protect yourself the rest of the time.

Lynette Summerill is an award-winning writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. In addition to writing about cancer-related issues for EmpowHER, her work has been seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Sources: Skin Cancer Foundation http://www.skincancer.org
Sunlight, Ultraviolet Radiation, and the Skin. NIH Consensus Statement 1989 May 8-10;7(8):1-29. Statement Online: http://consensus.nih.gov/1989/1989SunUVSkin074html.htm
2012 FDA OTC Sunscreen Products Rules. Accessed at:

Reviewed July 5, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Alison Stanton

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EmpowHER Guest

II have a scar on my right cheek from a large mole removed when I was three years old. It was itchy and the bumpy red part bled when scratched. Turns out it was Basal Cell Carcinoma.

October 12, 2012 - 11:35pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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