Expert: Sunscreen just the first step to skin protection

July 9, 2010 by Sara Peach

( -- Applying sunscreen is a summer ritual for Americans hoping to protect their skin from burns, wrinkles and cancers. But researchers have raised questions about the safety of some sunscreens.

Applying sunscreen is a summer ritual for Americans hoping to protect their skin from burns, wrinkles and cancers. But researchers have raised questions about the safety of some sunscreens. Read below for answers to your skin questions from Craig Burkhart, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who works in the multispecialty melanoma program.

Why do I need skin protection?

Sunlight contains two rays harmful rays, Ultraviolet A and B, that cause wrinkles, age spots and burns. Both forms of ultraviolet light play a role in the development of skin cancers.

More than one million skin-cancer cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Most are basal cell and squamous cell cancers, which are rarely fatal.

A third type of skin cancer, melanoma, is more dangerous. More than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanomas annually, and about 8,000 die of the disease each year.

But I wear sunscreen, so I'm protected, right?

Actually, applying sunscreen is only the first step to skin protection, Burkhart said.

“People think sunscreen is the whole thing,” he said. “A sun-avoidance regimen is much more important.”

In addition to wearing sunscreen, you should wear sun-protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats and wrap-around sunglasses. Several companies offer lightweight clothing with ultraviolet protection that can be worn even in .

It's also important to avoid the outdoors when the sun is brightest, Burkhart said, which means seeking shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Are sunscreens safe?

Some studies indicate that sunscreen could interfere with hormones in the body. Two common sunscreen agents, 4-MBC and oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3, have been shown to mimic estrogen in some animals.

Meanwhile, preliminary data from a Food and Drug Administration study suggests that one form of Vitamin A often added to sunscreens may accelerate the development of cancer in rats. The vitamin usually appears on the label as retinyl palmitate.

Because of those concerns, Burkhart recommends that his patients use “physical” sunscreens, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, rather than chemical sunscreens, which are absorbed by the skin. Unlike chemical sunscreens, physical sunscreens don't penetrate the skin, and they don't degrade over time. In general, they also provide better Ultraviolet A protection than chemical sunscreens.

In addition, infants younger than six months should wear sunscreen only on small areas, such as the face and hands, Burkhart said.

I have skin of color. How should I protect myself?

No matter your skin color or ethnicity, you can develop skin cancer. Everyone should practice a sun-avoidance regimen and wear sunscreen, Burkhart said.

It can be more difficult to detect in darker skin, so the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that like everyone, people with skin of color should regularly examine their skin and learn to identify abnormalities.

But if I avoid the sun, will I get enough Vitamin D?

Your body forms Vitamin D when you are exposed to sunlight. The vitamin helps you to build and maintain strong bones and may protect you against osteoporosis, cancer and other diseases.

To make sure you get enough Vitamin D, you should take a vitamin pill, Burkhart said.

“Take the supplement, and then you don't need the sun exposure,” he said.

You can also obtain Vitamin D by eating fish, eggs, cod liver oil and fortified milk.

What else should I do to protect my skin?

Use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and both UVA and UVB protection.

Apply sunscreen to dry skin 15-30 minutes before you go outdoors. Reapply it frequently, following the label instructions.

Avoid tanning beds. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared exposure to sunlamps and sunbeds to be a known cause of . People who use tanning beds before age 30 are at particular risk.

Don't buy combination products, such as those that contain both suncreen and insect repellant. In general, insect repellent needs to be used only once a day, but should be applied every few hours. “When you combine the two, you're applying one of them wrong,” Burkhart said.

Because ultraviolet rays penetrate the clouds, use sun protection even on cloudy days.

Remember that even in a tropical paradise, you can still get burned. “Most people forget to practice sun avoidance during vacations,” Burkhart said.

Explore further: Get Your Vitamin D From Food or Supplements -- Not Tanning Beds

Related Stories

To sun, or not to sun?

April 17, 2009

You ditched the baby oil with iodine ions ago, but you still have some burning questions about less-obvious sun no-no's. Now that spring is here and everyone's exposure time is likely to increase, get updated on the latest ...

Dark side of the sun

June 29, 2009

As a specialist in skin disorders and cancers, Dr. Janellen Smith sees firsthand what too much sun can do. Sunburns and accelerated skin aging are common results, but excessive sun exposure also can be deadly.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2010
Reading all the doom and gloom; How could we possibly have evolved and survived as a species w/o sunscreen? The way the cosmetics makers present it we're doomed to an ugly death if we don't put on sunscreen before we go in the sun. Actually, it's their companies that will be more seriously damaged.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.