Sunscreen Essentials

July 18, 2016

Of the thousands of sunscreens on the market, not a single one of them can protect you 100% of the time, but sunscreens do help to prevent the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR).

UVR dangers are real. More than 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and over 90% are caused by the sun’s UVR. The majority of skin damage associated with aging, such as wrinkles, sagging, discoloration and leathering are also UVR related.

More than half of the respondents in a new Consumer Reports survey say they usually skip sunscreen. It’s little wonder that cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer, the most common type, have increased so much — up 77% in the last 14 years. And melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, is also on the rise.

Consistently using sunscreens is just as important as knowing how to use them. Here are some helpful recommendations by dermatologists for the use of sunscreens.

  • Apply 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow time for a protective film to form.
  • Use sunscreen labeled as “broad spectrum,” indicating both UVA and UVB protection.
  • Use approximately one ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, to cover an adult.
  • For daily use, SPF 15 may be adequate. If you or a family member have a history of skin cancer, burn easily, do not tan or if you work outdoors, a sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater should be used. You may have read that there is little additional benefit to SPF over 30, but under real-world conditions, sunscreens with SPF over 30 do provide additional protection and are recommended if you are spending time outdoors.
  • Reapply every one to two hours even when using high SPF sunscreens.
  • Water-resistant sunscreens are labeled either as 40- or 80-minute water resistant and need to be reapplied after swimming or heavy sweating. Some new sunscreens are formulated for application even on wet skin, which can make reapplication more convenient.

The best sunscreen is the one you will use. You may have to test several to find the right fit. Consumer Reports publishes a list of recommended sunscreens you may wish to consult. In 2014, Coppertone Water Babies, Walmart’s Equate SPF 50, Bull Frog WaterArmor Sport and Target’s Up and Up were top-rated by Consumer Reports. Here is a helpful list of some sunscreen resources.

Dermatologist-Recommended Sunscreens

  • Sensitive skin – Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby, Coppertone Sensitive Skin, Vanicream
  • Babies – Coppertone Water Babies Pure and Simple, Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby
    Remember, a child as young as six months can have sunscreens applied.
  • Elegant products – Elta MD UV Daily, Prescribed Solutions Up the Anti, Anthelios Daily Moisturizer Cream, Neutrogena Pure and Free Liquid, Cerave AM lotion SPF 30
  • Men – Neutrogena for Men

Spray-On Sunscreens

  • Spray-on sunscreens are convenient and easy to apply but have some limitations. Coverage may be spotty, so be sure that you apply enough and rub it in for even coverage. Avoid inhaling the product. Spray it on your hands first, and then apply to your face using your hands.
  • Because of inhaling concerns, Consumer Reports recommends not using sprays on children.
  • Also, sprays are flammable, so you shouldn’t use them if you’ll be near an open flame, such as a grill.
  • There are also concerns about sunscreen ingredients. Tiny nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may penetrate skin and cause DNA damage. And as a precaution, pregnant women may want to avoid products with retinyl palmitate.

However, when all is said and done, the proven benefits of sunscreen outweigh the potential risk of using them. Protecting and caring for your skin is, after all, a lifelong responsibility.

A Sunscreen Timeline

Protecting the skin from sun damage can be traced back to early civilizations. The ancient Greeks used olive oil, and ancient Egyptians used extracts of rice, jasmine and lupine plants whose products are still used in skin care today. The timeline for the development of sunscreen looks something like this.

1936    A French chemist named Eugene Schueller, founder of L’Oreal, introduced the first commercial sunscreen.

1938    A Swiss chemistry student named Franz Greiter suffers sunburn while climbing Mount Piz Buin on the Swiss-Austrian border and sets out to invent an effective sunscreen.

1944    Benjamin Green, an airman and pharmacist, uses a greasy substance called “red vet pet” (red veterinary petrolatum) to protect himself and other soldiers from ultraviolet rays during World War II. Heavy and unpleasant, it works primarily as a physical barrier between the skin and the sun.

1940s  After the war, Mr. Green mixes red vet pet, cocoa butter and coconut oil into a product that would eventually become Coppertone suntan cream.

1946    Mr. Greiter’s product, called Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream), comes to market under the brand Piz Buin, which is still sold today.

1956    The familiar Coppertone Girl was drawn by an illustrator named Joyce Ballantyne. She used her three-year-old daughter, Cheri, as the model.

1970s  Piz Buin introduces sunscreens with ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B filters.

1978    The Food and Drug Administration proposes to regulate sunscreens, recommending standards for safety and effectiveness. These guidelines, some parts which never took full effect, mostly dealt with establishing SPF testing and labeling. However, the official document did state, “In the long run, sun tanning is not good for the skin.”

1988    The FDA approves a sunscreen product containing avobenzone, a UVA-only filter. The other approved filters until then were UVB ones that had incidental UVA protection.

1997    The FDA allows sunscreen makers to market the fact that their products contain avobenzone for UVA protection.

2006    The FDA misses a deadline set by Congress to approve proposed guidelines for sunscreens.

2007    The FDA finalizes its proposed rules on UVA testing and labeling and starts accepting comments on the proposals.

2012    The FDA established compliance dates for testing and labeling of sunscreens.

For the most current information about sunscreens, see the FDA Consumer Updates.

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