Sunscreen is a topical product that contains ingredients to protect the skin by guarding it against the sun’s dangerous ultraviolet rays. These products typically come in the form of creams, lotions, and sprays and are applied to the outside of the body for protection. There are two main types of UV (ultraviolet) rays that experts know contribute to the risk of skin cancer, UVA and UVB. Exposure to UVA (ultraviolet A) rays is associated with tanning and can lead to premature skin aging. It is also the main type of radiation from tanning beds. Though slightly less intense than UVB (ultraviolet B), it penetrates the skin more deeply. Exposure to UVB rays is associated with sunburns. It penetrates the outermost layers of the skin. Both harm and can damage the DNA in skin cells, rendering the use of sunscreen vital for people exposed to UVA and UVB radiation via the sun or other sources. UVC (ultraviolet C) radiation is filtered out by the ozone layer and thus is not addressed in sunscreen.
Most dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30, which blocks 97% of the sun’s UVB (type b ultraviolet) rays. Though higher-number SPFs work to block slightly more of the sun’s UVB rays, no sunscreen can provide 100% blockage. For UVA protection, seek out a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen. UVA accounts for up to 95% of the UV radiation reaching the earth and can even penetrate windows and cloud cover, whereas UVB rays can be filtered and do not penetrate glass. Most people can enjoy time outdoors safely with the use of broad-spectrum sunscreen and safe clothing, wide-brimmed hats, and eyewear. It’s important to protect the eyes with glasses as the sun’s rays can cause eye damage, including cataracts and eyelid cancers.
Generally, the FDA recommends that folks use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, applied liberally, with an SPF of 15 or higher, even on cloudy days. They suggest reapplying it to uncovered skin, minus the inside of the mouth and eyes, of course. But now, some experts are suggesting that this recommendation might not be enough, especially since skin cancer is on the rise in the U.S. Skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in the U.S. Per Cancer.org, about 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States. However, the exact number of people who develop or die from those types of skin cancers isn’t truly known as basal and squamous cell skin cancers are not reported to or tracked by cancer registries.
In Europe, there are stricter guidelines for sunscreens. The E.U. (European Union) regulates sunscreens as cosmetics, using approved sunscreen ingredients, of which many offer significant degrees of UVA protection. European sunscreen manufacturers voluntarily offer sunscreens with UVA protection at least one-third as potent as the SPF, which shields against UVB rays. Per EWG, “…because most sunscreens don’t filter UVA rays well enough, those sold in the U.S. would be too weak for the European market.” Thus, many folks believe that the United States is falling short in sunscreen quality. Popular opinion notes that some American sunscreens are greasy and difficult to apply, whereas European sunscreens go on more smoothly and feel better on the skin. In a study about five years ago (Reuters Health), about half of the U.S. sunscreens failed to meet European standards. Though most U.S. sunscreens protect well against UVB rays, some still lag in UVA protection.
In the U.S., sunscreen is regulated as a drug. Per Bloomberg, European sunscreen formulas contain protective ingredients, but U.S. manufacturers don’t have access to those additional molecules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs more data to assess whether new or additional ingredients are safe and effective. The FDA has discovered that some active ingredients commonly used in sunscreen in the U.S. are absorbed into the bloodstream at high levels and stay in the body for an extended time. Thus, the agency takes the science of sunscreen seriously. However, this finding does not mean the use of sunscreen is unsafe. Rather, the FDA continues to recommend that people wear sunscreen for the immense benefits it provides. The bottom line is to talk to your doctor about sun exposure and the health risks and advantages of sunscreen to determine which products and protections are best for you.
This article is not intended as a medical resource or substitute for medical advice. It is for general informational purposes only.