American Osteopathic Association

Advancing the distinctive philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine

The Shady Side of Sunscreens

Mom helping daughter put on sunscreenHow many times have you seen the claims "total," "all-day," or "waterproof" protection on the back of your sunscreens? The truth of the matter is, no sunscreen can completely screen or block the sun’s hazardous ultraviolet rays. With the majority of skin cancers attributed to sun exposure, it is essential to get the facts about sunscreen and learn how to protect yourself when out in the sun. Robert I. Danoff, DO, a board-certified osteopathic family physician from Philadelphia, explains what ingredients to look for in sunscreens and offers tips to keep you protected from the sun's damaging rays.

Which Sunscreen Should You Buy?

Most sunscreens only protect against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause sunburns. They do not combat ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which contribute to wrinkles, premature aging and, potentially, skin cancer. "The majority of my patients base their sunscreen purchases on the sun protection factor (SPF) number on the product. They think that the higher the SPF, the better the protection," says Dr. Danoff. 

However, the SPF number only indicates how long the product will protect the skin before it begins to burn. More than 84% of suntan lotions with high SPF levels, according to the Environmental Working Group, actually fail to protect sunbathers against all harmful rays. 

"Instead of only looking at SPF numbers, I always tell my patients to purchase a broad spectrum sunscreen that includes ingredients such as avobenzone, Mexoral SX, micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which shield against both UVA and UVB rays that contribute to skin cancers. You’re missing out on half the protection if you focus on the sun protection factor (SPF) alone," Dr. Danoff says.

Sunscreen Application Tips

Sunscreens use ingredients that deteriorate after long exposure to sun or heat. "Typically after three to four hours, sunscreen sweats off, washes off or wears off; plan on reapplying frequently," advises Dr. Danoff. "For the best protection, use sunscreen lotion, apply on dry skin, allow 30 minutes for the product to absorb into the skin before going outside, and reapply every four hours. Also make sure to apply the sunscreen to all your exposed areas, including ears, feet, eyelids and bald spots," he says. As for how much sunscreen to apply, Dr. Danoff recommends the equivalent of a shot glass full of sunscreen for adults and a heaping tablespoon for young kids. Additionally, aim to use water-resistant formulations if by the pool or ocean.

Sunsetting Thoughts on Sun Protection

"It is important to develop and maintain a sun protection regimen throughout the year," says Dr. Danoff. "You should apply sunscreen every day, year-round, not just during the warm weather months." In addition, Dr. Danoff recommends the following:

1. Wear protective clothing, preferably something in a lightweight, nylon-polyester blend that wicks moisture. Tightly-woven fabrics provide more protection. Clothing made of sun-protection fabrics, such as the Solumbra line, provides additional protection and is especially effective for young children and outdoor workers.

2. Wear wide-brimmed hats and wrap-around sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection for your eyes.

3. Apply lip balm with broad spectrum protection to lips.

4. Be mindful of the time of day. The peak time for sunburn risk is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

5. Check the weather forecast for the UV index. This is often located on the weather page of the local newspaper and lists the intensity of the UV rays for that day. Any value of five or greater means that sunscreen should be used for that day.

"Protecting yourself from UV rays should be a part of your daily routine," says Dr. Danoff. "Not only will you be doing your skin a favor in terms of preventing skin damage, but you are also preventing skin cancer and, potentially, saving your life."

Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well. They also encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.


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