A Whiter Shade of Pale

Skin cancer protection this summer?

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

With the temperatures heating up, so does the desire to spend time outdoors soaking up the rays. With talk about irreversible skin damage, including cancer and premature aging, most of us have made more of an effort to protect our skin from the sun's harsh rays.

In many ways we are ready to adopt the idea that fairer, healthier skin is the way go.

However, we don't always do enough to protect from the sun. Much of the reason is simply a lack of education about the best way to prevent sun damage. Overall, though, there has been a better effort to protect the skin, and more recognition that spending excessive time in the sun without protection is harmful.

"I think people are doing a better job. They realize that going outside and laying out with baby oil is not a good idea," said Dr. Mary Evers, a dermatologist with Texas Dermatology Center.

New FDA Rules on Sunscreen

Determining which sunscreens are best has long been tricky for consumers. In an effort to help clarify and to modernize standards for sunscreen, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced that sunscreens will be labeled with new information.

Under the new rules, sunscreens that protect from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolent B (UVB) will be labeled "broad spectrum." Sunscreens that are both broad spectrum and have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 can claim to help prevent sunburn, reduce the risk of skin cancer, and reduce the risk of early skin aging.

Products that have SPF values between 2 and 14 may be labeled as broad spectrum if they pass the required test, but only products that are labeled both as broad spectrum with SPF of at least 15 can state that they reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Any product with an SPF between 2 to 14, will be required to have a warning stating that the product has not been shown to help prevent skin cancer or early skin aging.

Additionally, the maximum SPF value on sunscreen will be limited to 50+ because higher SPFs have not been proven to be more effective. The regulations will be in place within a year.

"This has been a long time in the making," Dr. Evers said. "The current rating system for SPF does not do a good job."

Many sunscreens are similar, but they aren't all created equal. Make sure to choose a sunscreen that offers protection from both types of UV rays. Most sunscreens do a good job of protecting from UVB rays, but often times sunscreen buyers have no idea whether it will also protect them from UVA rays.

Some sunscreens protect only from UVB rays, which prevents burning. The additional UVA protection ensures that skin is protected from deeper skin damage that can cause premature aging and wrinkles.

"An SPF of 15 will cover about 91 percent of UV rays while 45 blocks 98 percent. Anything over SPF 45 doesn't protect you that much more," Dr. Evers said.

Using Sunscreen Correctly

Putting on sunscreen sounds easy enough, but many still aren't using it correctly. Chances are that if the summer is almost over and your bottle of sunscreen is still nearly full, that you probably are not applying as much as you should be.

"People are using it wrong. They're not putting an adequate amount on," Dr. Evers said. "The amount they put on should fill a shot glass. Most sunscreen bottles have about 3 ounces. That's enough for three applications."

Dr. Evers said people also are not doing a good job of reapplying sunscreen frequently enough. Sunscreen must be reapplied even more frequently for people who are sweating profusely.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. The organization recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.

Dr. Evers also warns that parents need to make sure they don't forget to apply sunscreen. Often they apply sunscreen to their children, but neglect themselves, she said.

Risks of Sun Exposure

One important thing to remember is that sun damage to your skin is lifelong cumulative, and there is currently no way to reverse damage, though antioxidants under development might someday offer that.

The biggest risk is skin cancer including melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. However, there is a 95 percent survival rate if the disease is caught early enough. Melanoma is considered especially dangerous because it can spread to other parts of the body such as the lymph nodes or organs where it could become hard to treat, or even fatal, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

It is not the most common type, but it causes the most deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that there are about 120,000 new cases of melanoma diagnosed in the U.S. each year. One person each hour dies from melanoma, Dr. Evers said.

Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common skin cancers. Both are usually treatable if caught early. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of all cancers and affects about two million in the U.S. each year. These cancers arise in the basal cells, which line the deepest layer of the top layer of skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. It generally occurs on parts of the body that have been excessively exposed to the sun.

Squamous cell carcinoma affects more than 700,000 each year and occurs in the squamous cells that make up most of the skin’s upper layers. Most commonly it occurs in area that were frequently exposed to the sun, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Melanoma can be caused by an inherited gene defect, and a rare form of basal cell cancer also can be genetic, but the majority is caused by sun exposure.

"One in five people develop skin cancer in their lifetime. That's pretty significant," Dr. Evers said.

The sun's rays also cause skin damage including premature aging and wrinkles that are preventable and easily avoided by taking steps to protect your skin.

Review Date: 
June 17, 2011