For decades, doctors and the media have recommended you apply sunscreen before going outside.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), everyone should use sunscreen for protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, believed to be the trigger for skin cancer and the precursor to wrinkles and premature aging.1
However, the recommendations don’t include the kind of sunscreen that is effective, nor do the recommendations advise you how to use the sun effectively to protect yourself from skin cancer and improve your vitamin D level, which has significant health benefits, including a lowered risk of melanoma.
To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have regulations governing advertising and claims for sunscreen.2 In 2011, the FDA banned the use of terms on sunscreen making inflated claims, such as “all day protection” and “sweat-” or “waterproof.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released their 2016 list of best and worst sunscreens3 based on criteria such as level of protection and safety of the product, to guide your use of sunscreens this season.
Just remember, companies can change their ingredients, so always read the labels of the products you purchase.
Are Sunscreens the Right Way to Prevent Sunburn and Skin Cancer?
Despite the availability of sunscreen products and media coverage about using sun protection, the number of people suffering from malignant melanoma of the skin continues to rise each year. The number of new cases of skin cancer per 100,000 people has risen from 7.9 in 1975 to 24 people in 2013.4
This represents a consistent average 3 percent rise each year in newly diagnosed cases and a 200 percent rise from 1975 to 2013.
Ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth as UVA and UVB light, and has been classified as a human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program (NTP).5 UVA is generally considered to be less carcinogenic than UVB.
Because it was believed UVB light was more dangerous, sunscreen products were first developed to filter UVB and not UVA. However, recent research has demonstrated UVA radiation actually plays an important role in the development of malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer.
According to estimates, more than 144,000 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2016, with five-year survival rates starting at 98 percent if the cancer has not reached the lymph nodes, 63 percent for regional cancer and dropping to 17 percent for distant-stage melanoma.6
A number of studies demonstrate sunscreen reduces the number of new squamous cell skin cancers, but has no effect on basal cell and may actually contribute to the development of the more aggressive malignant melanoma.7
There is some evidence that non-melanoma and easily treated skin cancers are related to cumulative exposure to the sun. However, that is not the case with malignant melanoma, linked with significant sunburns.8
The American Cancer Society recommends sunscreen should be used as a filter, and not a reason to stay longer in the sun. For extended outings, they recommend other methods of sun protection, even when properly using sunscreen, such as hats, sunglasses, clothing and shade.9