The Medical Tent: The Best Protection for Your Skin is Sunscreen

By Dr. Robert Clement, M.D. – May 14, 2012

Damage from the ultraviolet (UV) rays affect the skin’s entire structure, causing damage to the cellular structure, collagen, and elastic fiber. The UVA (long-wave rays) cause damage leading to aging and cancer, while UVB (shortwave rays) are primarily the source of sunburns. Fortunately, early and frequent protection can reduce the aging effect and chances of skin cancer.

There are basically two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens block the sun's damage by absorbing rays before they can cause damage to the underlying skin. These chemical sunscreens tend to break down quickly and need to be applied more frequently. The chemical sunscreens that are currently on the market and readily available are Parsol, PABA, and Mexoryl XL, which give protection against both UVA and UVB. Physical sunscreens work by reflecting rays away from the skin. The physical blockers are zinc oxide, titanium oxide, and iron oxide.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently requires sunscreen makers to give a sun protection factor (SPF) rating for UVB, the less damaging ray. New FDA rules will require the sunscreen label to provide a rating for both UVA and UVB protection. These new rules will come into effect sometime this summer and should give you a much better idea of what type of protection you actually buy.

So what do the numbers mean? SPF is the amount of protection the product gives. For example, SPF 20 protects the skin against sun damage 20 times greater than skin that has not been covered with sunscreen. Most studies indicate that an SPF of 15 blocks about 93 percent of the sun's damage while an SPF of 50 blocks about 98 percent. Therefore, any product greater than SPF 50 is probably not giving additional protection.

Sunscreens come in lotions, creams, sprays, gels, and wipes. I favor a cream or lotion and a physical barrier such as zinc oxide because these methods stay on longer and protect better. Creams seem to work better for people who have dry skin and when applied on the face, while lotions work better on larger areas of the body. People who do not like the feel of some of the sunscreens can use gels, which are less sticky.

If you are confused about which sunscreen to buy, you are not alone. There are 200 sunscreen manufacturers making over 4,000 different sunscreens. The new FDA rules will reduce this confusion by forcing better information on the product's ability to block UVA and UVB and give a specific SPF. Before you buy, I recommend looking at the bottle to make sure that your sunscreen has an SPF of 30, is broad-spectrum (meaning it covers both UVA and UVB rays), and is water resistant. (none are waterproof). Additional protection can be gained by reapplying sunscreen at regular intervals and by using hats and clothing that have SPF protection.

In addition to good sunscreen products, healthy skin can be improved with skin products which restore pH, elasticity, and collagen in the skin. These include the vitamins C, B, and E, as well as growth serum, retinols, and polypeptides, which are available in multiple skin product lines. It is, however, important to remember that there is absolutely no substitute—none—for good sunscreen protection.

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