Sunscreen Questions? A Dermatologist Provides Answers

Merely Me Health Guide
  • Summer is in full force for many of us and you are probably stocking up on the sunscreen. But do you always know what you are getting when you make that purchase? The use of sunscreen has been a prominent feature of news reports recently due to the newly proposed FDA regulations on sunscreen products.  In addition, some organizations such as The Environmental Working Group have posted warnings about potential safety concerns over some common ingredients found in sunscreens. It can be confusing for consumers to make sense of what appears to be conflicting information about sunscreen products. To help us sort through the recent media reports and latest changes in sunscreen labeling we have asked for the expert guidance of Dr. Lawrence Green, a practicing dermatologist, and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at George Washington University School of Medicine.

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    You may find out more about Dr. Green by visiting his website: Aesthetics, Skin Care, and Dermasurgery.


    What should we look for in choosing a sunscreen?


    Dr. Green: Until next year, when the new sunscreen labels take effect, I suggest looking at SPF level (make sure it is 30 or higher) and the active ingredients in a sunscreen prior to purchasing it. It does involve some extra work, but that is the only way you can be assured you are using the "broad spectrum protection" the FDA is referring to when the new labeling begins next year. I recommend looking for one or more of the active ingredients zinc oxide, Helioplex (a Neutrogena trademark), or mexoryl in any sunscreen you purchase. Sunscreens with any one of these three active ingredients usually offer broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection. My personal favorite is zinc oxide, an inorganic sunscreen that is gentle on the skin (and is now micronized so it is also rubs in easily and is invisible).


    Are there any harmful ingredients in some sunscreens?


    Dr. Green: Sunscreens are meant to give you some added protection from the sun in places where clothing cannot protect you. Clothing, umbrellas, and shade are always the preferred way of protecting yourself from the sun. The majority of the people who use sunscreens never have any harmful reactions to them. Just as with any lotion you put on your skin, there is always a small chance you could have an allergic reaction to a sunscreen lotion, spray, or gel you use. With today's sunscreens most allergic reaction occur from the inactive ingredients (as opposed to the active ingredients) from the lotion part or vehicle of the sunscreen. But as far as sunscreen active ingredients go, the active ingredient zinc oxide is the least likely to cause any irritation or allergic reactions.


    There are two unproven theories that I have heard about sunscreens potentially causing harm. The first is from the use of organic, also called chemical suscreens-those with any active ingredient other than zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. When a chemical sunscreen is rubbed into your skin, it is activated by the sun to protect you. A chemical reaction occurs with heat and free radicals generated on your skin as a byproduct from the chemical sunscreen's prevention of the sun's ultraviolet radiation from damaging your skin's DNA. Some people believe these free radicals generated from the chemical reaction can be absorbed into the skin and also create DNA damage. Again, this has not been proven.


    One other theory I have heard is that the nanoparticle packaging used to hold in the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles in inorganic, also called physical blocking sunscreens can be absorbed through the skin and cause deleterious effects internally in the body. This theory has actually been disproven in multiple studies I have read.


    What does SPF mean and which SPF value is best?


    Dr. Green: SPF refers to "sun protection factor." Unfortunately, SPF refers only to Ultraviolet B ray protection. The two harmful rays of the sun that reach the earth's surface are Ultraviolet A and B rays (UVA and UVB). Both types of ultraviolet radiation cause skin damage, wrinkles, and skin cancer. So, if you are wearing an SPF 100 sunscreen that has no active ingredients for UVA protection (none of the active ingredients I mentioned above), you are still very susceptible to the damaging effects of UVA radiation from the sun. The sunscreen protection is incomplete. That is why the new FDA labeling rules (which will add the term "broad spectrum protection" on the label to include UVA protection in addition to stating the SPF) that are supposed to start in the summer of 2012 will be so helpful.

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    What are your thoughts on the following claim by EWG's Skin Deep?


    "Some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. No one knows the cause, but scientists speculate that sunscreen users stay out in the sun longer and absorb more radiation overall, or that free radicals released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight may play a role. One other hunch: Inferior sunscreens with poor UVA protection that have dominated the market for 30 years may have led to this surprising outcome."


    Dr. Green: First, no one really knows if there is an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. Some studies say a soft yes, while others say a definitive no. That said, there is some truth to the assertion that sunscreen users feel they can spend more time in the sun if they have on sunscreen. And this is not a good idea. I often hear from someone that they still got sunburned or suntanned while laying out at the pool or beach even though they put on sunscreen. Sunscreens are not meant to protect someone who willingly puts themselves directly into the sun's rays with little clothing on and just sits or lies in a chair. There is no protection for someone who does that, just a potential future of skin damage, wrinkles and skin cancer. On the other hand, sunscreens are meant to protect people who use them where clothing is not practical, and are in the sun during a physical activity (such as golf, beach volleyball, or playing with the kids at the beach, etc), and go and sit in the shade afterwards.


    There also may be some truth to the assertion-although this again is only hearsay, not fact-that inferior susncreens that offer only high SPF/UVB protection and lack any real UVA protection are giving people a false sense of security with its use. This is where the new FDA labeling of "broad spectrum protection" that starts next year should be helpful.


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    One more word for the wise: Currently, many sunscreens claim "broad spectrum protection" on their labels. In 2011, this is only an advertising claim, and it is just an advertising ploy. But, in 2012, any label that states "broad spectrum protection" will have to mean it.


    Thank you Dr. Green for answering our questions!


    For more information about sunscreen please refer to the following MySkinCareConnection articles:


    Sunscreen Safety Concerns


    Sunscreen Label Changes


    How’s Your Sunscreen IQ?

Published On: June 30, 2011