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Sunblock – Redefining Sun Protection

June 23, 2010

Sunscreens are an area of confusion and marketing hype. What Sun Protective Factor (SPF) is best for me? For my child? Is a 70 SPF better than a 30? Is it micro-technology or nano-technology? Is this one waterproof? Is it broad spectrum? There are so many issues, so many types. The Skin Cancer Foundation Seal of Recommendation has been granted to over 800 products.

This kind of confusion even finds its way into my house. One day, many years ago, one of my young sons and I were going fishing. Mom insisted we stop to purchase some sun block. My son went into a pharmacy to buy a 30 SPF while I waited in the car. To my dismay, he came back empty handed. When I asked why he replied that the labels for all the 30s said they were for cancer and he didn’t have cancer. Confusing? It certainly is confusing!

Worse, there are currently no official rules regarding sunblocks. But federal guidelines are coming from the FDA later this year for implementation in 2012. SPF claims will be capped at 50 because there is little evidence of greater protection above that number. Moreover, the FDA approach will emphasize a comprehensive approach to sun exposure, encouraging the seeking of shade and generally covering up. In reality, sunscreen can help against sunburn but really isn’t proven to prevent skin cancer or premature aging.

“Hats, clothing and shade are still the only completely reliable sun protection,” writes the VP of research in the Environmental Working Group’s annual Sunscreen Safety Guide. Moreover, sunblock users of high SPF numbers develop a false sense of security and tend to stay out longer.

The very term SPF leaves a lot to be desired, measuring primarily short ray UVB, which causes sunburn, but overlooking UVA, which does facilitate tanning but is the real culprit in the development of skin cancer and premature aging. Further, SPF 15 blocks around 93% of UVB while SPF 50 only adds another 5% to 98%. A proper approach would be to expand the significance of SPF to make protection broader and cover more UVA rays. Again, the Environmental Working Group provides a measure of caution, criticizing a surge in exaggerated SPF claims above 50 and expresses concerns about ingredients. I will address sunblock ingredients in some detail in my next blog. In the meanwhile, Be Well.

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