An Assault on Your Skin

June 02, 2015

For many people summer activities include getting a tan.  You might think that these people don’t know about the relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer.  But most of them do.  In fact, most persons have taken this information to heart and as a result now use a sunscreen for protection against damaging rays.  The paradox created here is that the message “use sunscreens” carried with it an interpretation that was never intended: “if you use a sunscreen, you can sit in the sun longer and at any time of the day.”  But this is not so.  (An analogy that might help you understand this is: Wearing a seatbelt does not mean that you can drive recklessly.)  Researchers now believe that this unintended interpretation may actually be leading to an acceleration of melanoma (the deadly kind of skin cancer) because people may sit in the sun for longer periods of time, thereby increasing exposure to ultraviolet rays.  The true message is that sunscreens protect against sunburn and some types of cancer.

It is very hard to convince those who seek a summer tan that they are putting themselves at risk for skin cancer. Skin damage from the sun is real and can be a primary cause of skin cancer for anyone at any age. While you may think a tan gives you a healthy glow, a tan is actually an injury, resulting from an assault on the skin by the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  

If you are going to continue to sunbathe, or if you will be outdoors in the sun for extended periods of time, you need to use a sunscreen product. The brand you choose doesn’t matter. The main factors to consider are the SPF (sun protection factor) and whether or not it is a “Broad Spectrum” product. For the best protection, you should know that:

  • “Broad Spectrum” products (those that protect against UVA and UVB sun rays) with an SPF of 15 or higher help protect not only against sunburn, but also protect for skin cancer and skin aging when used as directed and with other sun protective measures. (If a “Broad Spectrum” has an SPF of less than 15, it can only be labeled to protect against sunburn.)
  • Sunscreens labeled with an SPF only are protective only against sunburn.
  • Sunscreens with an SPF of less than 15 and sunscreens that are not Broad Spectrum, regardless of the SPF should have a warning statement that says “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
  •  “Waterproof”, “sweatproof” or “sunblock claims” are no longer be allowed, as these types of claims overstate their effectiveness. If you have an older product, take note. You should also replace products older than three years, especially if they have been exposed to temperature extremes.
  • Sunscreens may not claim to provide sun protection for more than 2 hours without reapplication or to claim that the product provides immediate protection unless the manufacturer has provided credible data to the FDA proving this.
  • If a product claims that it is “water-resistant”, the front label should indicate whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing.
  • Sunscreens that are not water-resistant should include a direction instructing consumers to use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.
  • All sunscreens should have standard “drug facts” on the back and/or side of the container.
  • Future changes under consideration include limiting the SPF factor on labels to 50+ because there is currently no sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 would provide greater protection for users.

You will note above that the there is a statement about broad spectrum sunscreens that indicates that a sunscreen alone is protective, but not a guarantee that you won’t develop skin cancer. It states “…when used as directed and with other sun-protective measures.” What are other sun-protective measures? For the most effective protection, you should do the following:

  • Recognize that the sun’s rays can affect you during all seasons of the year. They can penetrate clouds. They reflect off surfaces like water, cement, sand and snow.
  • Use sunscreens that are broad spectrum and have SPF values of 15 or higher.
  • Limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Wear clothing to cover skin exposed to the sun, including broad-rimmed hats.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours.
  • Use a water-resistant sunscreen when swimming or sweating, with frequent applications.
  • Check expiration dates. A sunscreen without an expiration date usually has a maximum shelf-life of 3 years. However, exposures of these products to high temperatures can cause the shelf-life to be shorter.

As you enjoy the nice weather, don’t forget to protect your eyes from the sun’s rays. Exposure to UV rays may lead to eye problems like cataracts. Long hours without eye protection can result in a short-term condition known as “photo keratitis,” which is a reversible sunburn of the cornea in the eye. It can happen at the beach or from the snow. Sunglasses that offer 99 to 100 percent UV protection will help to protect your eyes from harmful rays. Be sure they are labeled “sunglasses” and are not just fashion glasses. Fashion glasses will reduce the glare, but do not prevent damage from UV rays. Children should wear real sunglasses, not toy sunglasses. Wrap-around styles offer the most protection. For more information on melanoma, Quinnipiack Valley Health District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can free written materials by calling 203 248-4528 or request by email, dculligan@qvhd.org  If you have internet access, information is available at www.skincancer.org, http://www.cancer.gov or http://www.mayoclinic.org