Summer fun includes protection from the sun

July 20, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Michelle Johnson, Jackie Potter and Hayley Magee (from left), on summer vacation from classes at Skyline High School, share sunscreen sprays and lotions of SPF 15, 30 and 50, before sunbathing July 14 on the dock at Pine Lake Park. By Greg Farrar

Go into any drugstore and you’re bound to run into a plethora of sunscreen options this summer. But do you really know what to look for?

Many people don’t, so you’re not alone.

“There are a lot of sunscreens out there,” Amy Cheng, a dermatologist with Virginia Mason Medical Center, said.

Even the federal Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a consumer-friendly system of standards regulating the claims of companies who make sunscreen, despite the Sunburn Protection Factor label.

Since 2007, officials with the FDA have posted consumer updates on its website saying it’s in process of developing a set of standards, but those have yet to come to fruition.

With more than 3.5 million cases of skin cancer reported annually in the U.S., according to the nonprofit Skin Cancer Foundation’s website, a system can’t come fast enough. Especially since many sunscreens only provide protection against ultraviolet B rays, but not against equally harmful ultraviolet A rays.

Until a system is developed, here are some basic things you need to know to protect yourself from the sun.

What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays?

UVB rays are primarily responsible for sunburns, while UVA rays cause tanning, according to the FDA website.

“They’re both present at the same time,” through the sun’s rays, Cheng said. “UVA rays have longer waves and penetrate deeper into the skin. UVB rays are stronger, but penetrate less. They both cause skin cancer and they both age your skin.”

While sunscreen labels are required to carry a SPF value, designed to inform users how well the product protects against UVB light, it doesn’t often inform you whether it protects against UVA light.

“Some studies will say that 98 percent of sunscreens on the market failed protecting consumers, but it depends on what study you look at,” she said. “There are a lot of sunscreens that are broad spectrum and protect against UVA and UVB rays.”

What should you look for?

Nothing beats an umbrella or shade, Cheng said, but when you’re out in the sun, you need to wear sunscreen, no matter who you are.

“Skin is the biggest organ in our body, so it is important to take care of it,” she said. “If you aren’t eating healthfully, you’re tanning, lead a harsh life or smoke, skin is a window to what you’ve been doing. Everything shows up eventually.”

Cheng said she tells patients to look for sunscreens that say they have broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays. Companies like Aveeno, Neutrogena and Coppertone’s Water BABIES have at least one sunscreen each that meet the requirements, she said.

If you can’t find those, turn to the ingredient list on the back of the bottle, she said. What you are looking for are two things — physical blockers and chemical absorbers.

Physical blockers include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which appear white so as to protect your skin like a shield that reflects the rays.

Companies have developed other chemical formulas, too, some with a combination of physical blockers.

Usually, at least three active ingredients are called for to be an effective chemical absorbing sunscreen, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation website. These generally include: PABA derivatives, salicylates, and/or cinnamates (octylmethoxycinnamate and cinoxate) for UVB absorption; benzophenones (such as oxybenzone and sulisobenzone) for shorter-wavelength UVA protection; and avobenzone, ecamsule (Mexoryl) titanium dioxide or zinc oxide for the remaining UVA spectrum.

You can also purchase Ultraviolet Protection Factor clothing at retail stores, like REI, she said. Stores sell a variety of shirts, shorts, hats and even swimwear that protect you from the sun’s rays.

Sans sunscreen? Think again

Diseases most commonly related to prolonged exposure to the sun are skin cancers, Cheng said.

Two types, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, affect more than 2.25 million Americans each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation website.

Both occur in cells in the upper layer of your skin, your epidermis. They both can occur on all areas of the body, but mostly in sun-exposed areas, like your ears, lips, face, scalp, neck, hands, arms and legs, according to the FDA website.

“I see maybe five cases a day. It is extremely common,” Cheng said. You’ll notice “basal or squamous cells by the red scaly spots that appear on your skin and don’t go away. They look like a red pimple or blemish that doesn’t go away.”

Far more rare, but deadlier, is melanoma.

Depending on what study you refer to, one in every 45 or 75 people diagnosed will die, she said. There are about 68,000 cases of melanoma diagnosed in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Melanoma is a malignant tumor that develops in the cells that produce the pigment melanin that colors the skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation website. Often, the tumors are a black or brown mole or spot and can be raised, flat or misshapen, Cheng said.

You should see a doctor if you have something on your skin that looks odd, since most skin cancers, diagnosed in early stages, have a high cure rate, she said.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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