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SkinNo one wants to end a day of outdoor fun with a painful sunburn. And certainly, no one wants to put themselves or their family at risk for developing skin cancer. (Read about "Skin Cancer")

What can be done? According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), your best bet is to avoid sun exposure during the peak burning hours of midday and to cover up with clothing and wide-brimmed hats. What about sunscreen? ACS says that when sun exposure can't be avoided, sunscreen may help protect exposed areas of skin. (Read about "Skin") But ACS stresses that sunscreen should not be used as the main strategy for skin protection. That's because even with sunscreen, exposure to intense sunlight can still be dangerous.

Sun exposure causes changes in the sensitive layers of the skin and its connective tissue. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma begin in the epidermis of the skin; melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, originates in the melanocytes. And the dangers are cumulative. That's why sun protection is especially important for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) most of our sun exposure, between 60 to 80 percent, happens before we turn 18.


Although sunscreens aren't meant to be your only line of defense, ACS says they are still helpful. They are also plentiful, as a trip to the drugstore can indicate. One thing all sunscreens have in common is that they are rated by their SPF (sun protective factor). This number theoretically indicates how many times longer a person can stay in the sun while using the product. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for an SPF of at least 15. Again, however, ACS cautions against using sunscreen simply to prolong sun exposure. It's still advisable to limit sun exposure whenever possible, using clothing or hats to cover up for example or seeking shade when possible.

Choosing sunscreen

There are a number of active ingredients that let sunscreens either absorb or reflect the two main types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB rays. Both UVA and UVB radiation contribute to the sun's damaging effects, which include sunburn, skin cancer, and premature skin aging. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that many sunscreens - even those with the same SPF numbers - have different combinations of these ingredients. Some ingredients (such as oxybenzone and avobenzone or Parsol 1789) screen out UVA rays; some (such as cinnamates and salicylates) screen out UVB rays, some screen out portions of both. There are also physical blockers such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

According to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays can be labeled "Broad Spectrum." Sunscreen products that meet the criteria for being called Broad Spectrum, and have an SPF of 15 or higher, may state that they reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging, when used as directed. Products that have SPF values between 2 and 14 may be labeled as Broad Spectrum if they protect against both UVA and UVB, but only products that are labeled both as Broad Spectrum with SPF values of 15 or higher can make the claim about lowering risk of skin cancer.

Your doctor can advise you on which ingredients are most suited to your type of skin, especially if you might be allergic or sensitive to certain ingredients such as PABA. (Read about "Allergies")

In fact, because some people may experience allergic reactions to various sunscreen ingredients, FTC says it's a good idea to test a product first by applying a small amount to a limited area of your skin. Also, if you're taking medication, ask your doctor or pharmacist if your medications will make your skin sensitive to the sun. Certain medications such as antibiotics, birth control pills, diuretics, antihistamines and antidepressants can increase sensitivity to the sun's rays. (Read about "Medicine Safety")

For babies (who generally should be protected by avoiding excessive sun exposure, not with sunscreen) and for children under the age of two, make sure you consult your pediatrician for advice. In general, AAP says sunscreen is better then nothing, if the child is out in the sun and there are no other protective options. Covering the child with clothing is still the best but, according to AAP, a small amount of sunscreen on the back of the hands and the face may be safe. (Read about "Children and Sun")

When applying sunscreen, FDA says a sunscreen works most effectively when:

As with any over-the-counter or other type of medication, always check the label to make sure that the product isn't past its expiration date. According FDA, sunscreens have a shelf life of about 2 years, after which the chemicals can separate from the solution, giving the product a gritty feel. FDA says you should also avoid storing sunscreen products in direct sunlight, as high temperatures can affect these kinds of products.

Remember, too, that even with sunscreen, there is no such thing as a "safe" tan. Skin cancer, the most common cancer in this country, is linked to too much exposure to the sun, so your best defense against skin cancer is to avoid that excess sun exposure in the first place.

Related Information:

    Cancer: What It Is


    Skin Care

All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.

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By printing and/or reading this article, you agree that you accept all terms and conditions of use, as specified online.