Burning issue: Sunscreens must meet new standards

Screens are not fool-proof protective shields. A window screen doesn’t protect from no-see-ums that make you look like you have measles. A human resource expert can try to screen out loser candidates, but still a lazy toxic person can slip through the cracks and into the adjoining desk in your office.

Should sunscreens be any different?

The FDA realizes that screens are not impenetrable shields. This federal organization announced June 14, 2011, that it will now require sunscreen manufacturers to meet standards and better inform consumers about their products.

About 40 percent of American adults and 80 percent of kids get a sunburn every year, and sunscreens are supposed to help prevent our skin from looking like Peking duck. Besides the obvious pain and sometimes blisters from sunburn, sun damage can have long-term consequences such as cancer. Just last year, 68,130 cases of melanoma were reported.

Melanoma can be deadly, and it only has to be 0.76mm deep into the skin to metastasize to the rest of the body. That's as thin as the skin of your teeth– or Ally McBeal! Last year it cost $2 billion to treat melanoma. Other skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, can deform the face or whatever body part they invade.

So how effective is your sunscreen? The FDA is going to require that all sunscreens be tested for effectiveness against the sun rays that can cause skin cancer. Now sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or less will have a warning label, “This product has been shown to help prevent only sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”

Many sunscreens don’t block both UVA and UVB radiation from the sun. UVB is more likely to cause sunburn, and so many sunscreens only block UVB. The problem is that UVA increases the risk of wrinkles and skin cancer. So while a person might not sunburn, it doesn’t mean that she or he won’t be “burned” years later– with skin cancer. 

And if you think you're protected from UVA under an umbrella, UVA can penetrate glass. So yes, you can get wrinkles from sunlight through the window.

“I’m walking on sunshine… wooah, and don’t it feel good!” sang Katrina & the Waves. So the FDA is requiring all sunscreens to test for UVA protection.

Physical blocks reflect all UV radiation. Personally, I use Origins for my face to block the harmful rays. Physical blocks aren’t as popular because they can bleach clothes, and if you get a bad product, it can cause acne.

So many of the popular sunscreens are chemical blocks, such as PABA. But these chemical blocks don’t often protect the skin from UVA radiation. So “broad spectrum” sunscreens are going to be the wave of the future to work against both UVA and UVB rays.

“Waterproof” and “sweatproof” labels are going to be banned because they exaggerate their effects. Dermatologists recommend reapplying sunscreen every two hours. I have soooooo many patients in the summer who come in with burned, dead skin hanging like the topping on a coconut cake. 

“I put on sunscreen.” How much? “Oh, once at 10am, and I was out until 6pm– in the ocean–and pool– and my kids buried me under the sand.”

So the moral of the story is that screens are not shields: metal, Dalkon, or Brooke.
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a respected physician with an interesting website. Email him with your questions: drjohnhong.com

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