The Exchange

Commentary and Observations from
the Medical Front Lines

Sun Protection

Sun Protection

In the late 1970s, the promotion of sun protection was almost nonexistent, even though Swiss researcher, Franz Greiter, had developed the concept of sun protection factor (SPF). The first products were introduced to the US market in 1978; they had low SPFs of 2 or 4 and were designed to be "tanning enhancers" that helped you darken without burning. In the early 1980s, a Photobiology Committee of experts was created by the Skin Cancer Foundation, which helped establish a standard for adequate sun protection. Sunscreens are now labeled with an SPF, such as 15, 30, or 50. A sunscreen labeled SPF 15 means it will take you 15 times as long to get a sunburn as it would if you had no sunscreen on. A sunscreen labeled SPF 30 means it would take you 30 times as long to burn.

It is well established that too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can damage the DNA in your skin cells, which can lead to premature aging and skin cancer. In the United States, more than 9500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, and at least one in five Americans will develop the disease by the age of 70. The most common type of skin cancer is nonmelanoma; 90% of the time, nonmelanoma is associated with long-term, unprotected exposure to the sun. It is important to remember that UV rays can cause skin damage during any season or at any temperature; therefore the American Academy of Dermatology suggests wearing a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 daily, and if outdoors, applying at least 1 ounce of sunscreen to all exposed skin every 2 hours.

Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a pilot study showing that the chemicals used in sunscreen have a potential for high systemic absorption. This has led the FDA to call for further industry testing to determine the safety and effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients with chronic use. Due to the premature nature of the results, the fact that skin cancer is a real concern, and the recognized public health benefits of sunscreen use, the FDA urges Americans to use sunscreens in conjunction with other measures, such as sun protective clothing. In addition, a mineral-based sunscreen containing zinc and/or titanium dioxide seems to be a safe alternative.

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Filed under: Dermatology

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