By Dr. Cameron K. Rokhsar
New York Cosmetic, Skin & Laser Surgery Center
One of the best ways to protect yourself from skin cancer is by slathering on sun block or sunscreen. These days, the many options make it difficult to decide which products pack the best punch, but navigating the shelves is much easier with just a little bit of knowledge. Terms such as “broad spectrum” and “SPF” are no longer reserved exclusively for sunscreens and sun blocks with more and more cosmetics companies including sun defense in their products. Foundations, moisturizers, lipsticks and even blushes now commonly include sun protection making skin cancer even easier to avoid.
“Most people look for a certain SPF and miss out on important skin cancer protection simply because they lack knowledge of the terms that now define the sun protection market,” Dr. Rokhsar says, adding that the final key is staying conscious of the product’s expiration date. “Just like any other formulation, once it’s expired you cannot count on sun block or sunscreen for its full protection.”
UVA and UVB Rays: Ultraviolet rays are invisible energy, also known as radiation, generated by the sun. They are divided into three wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC rays don’t make it into the earth’s atmosphere and therefore aren’t present in sunlight. The remaining two make up only a small portion of the sun’s radiation, but are the main culprits of skin cancer. UVB rays are shorter ultraviolet rays and are mainly responsible for damage due to the cells’ DNA. UVA rays, the longest ultraviolet rays, were previously thought to be harmless but research has proven that UVA rays also play a role in causing skin cancer.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF): Most people refer to SPF — a rating of the product’s ability to screen or block the sun’s rays ranging from two to 60 — when choosing their protection. According to Dr. Rokhsar, SPF 15 is a good place to start. “The value of a sunscreen or block can be computed with a simple math equation,” explains Dr. Rokhsar. “For a fair skinned person who reddens after 10 minutes of exposure, SPF 15 multiplies that burning time by 15 enabling them to stay outside for 150 minutes before becoming red.” Despite the claims of “all day protection” made by some sunscreens with high SPF levels, Dr. Rokhsar says that those beyond SPF 30 really do not provide better protection.
Sunscreen: Sunscreens absorb UV rays. The most popular ingredients in sunscreens are benzophenones, which protect against the sun’s UVA rays and cinnamates and salicylates, which protect against UVB rays. When reading the package, make sure the lotion includes both sets of ingredients usually listed as oxybenzone, octyl salicylate or octyl methoxycinnamate. The major drawback to using a sunscreen is that the ingredients can break down after being exposed to sunlight, making it necessary to reapply.
Sun Block: Sun blocks reflect the sun’s radiation, preventing them from ever making contact with the skin. The most effective of all sun blocks is zinc oxide, the creamy white coating that reflects both UVA and UVB rays. The days of unwanted summertime body art thanks to opaque zinc dioxide are over since it’s become available in skin tones. Better yet, its chemical form titanium dioxide is available in a clear formula. Most commercial lotions labeled “non-chemical” or for sensitive skin include a form of zinc oxide. Since they are intended to block the sun entirely, Dr. Rokhsar steers clear of sun blocks advertising an SPF. “A sun block with SPF is redundant. If the product can do its job, it doesn’t need additional SPF and they shouldn’t be trusted,” cautions Dr. Rokhsar.
Broad Spectrum: SPF is part of the equation because it measures a product’s ability to block UVB rays, which are not solely responsible for causing skin cancer. Products labeled “broad spectrum” include ingredients that cover the broadest possible range of UV radiation. According to Dr. Rokhsar, it’s difficult to determine the efficacy of broad spectrum lotions because there is no set method of measuring it — the FDA is currently grappling with setting a standard.
Helioplex: Helioplex covers the complete UVA and UVB range with a combination of two sunscreens: avobenzone and oxybenzone, which are both recognized by the FDA as safe and effective. This combination screens out UVB those that cause most burns and helps stop damaging UVA rays from penetrating the skin.
Anthelios SX: Anthelios SX was approved by the FDA in 2006 and has made waves for its long lasting protection. 80 percent of UVA and 90 percent of UVB protection remains five hours of application, making constant reapplications unnecessary in order to ward off cancer-causing radiation. Anthelios SX combines a new UVA absorber, ecamsule, with an oldie but goodie, avobenzone. Added to the mix is octocrylene, a well-known UVB absorber.