No one really likes using sunscreen — it’s messy and expensive — but we all know we should put it on when we go outside for any length of time.
Most sunscreens help prevent sunburn, but even the best products on the market “don’t absolutely protect you from skin cancer,” says Dr. Allan Oseroff, chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.
Dr. Oseroff worries that sunscreens give people a false sense of security. “Because they allow you to spend more time in the sun without getting burned, you could wind up with more sun exposure than you would without it.”
Buying a good sunscreen means doing more than deciding what Sun Protection Factor (SPF) you need. The SPF number only tells you how much of the sun’s UVB radiation, the so-called “burning rays,” the product blocks.
You should use a sunscreen that is at least SPF 15, which will block 93 percent of the burning UVB rays. If you’re planning to be under the sun for most of the day, you may want to go with an SPF 30, which blocks 96.7 percent of UVB rays.
While an SPF 30 offers a bit more protection from sunburn, it does not, as some people think, double the time you can stay in the sun.
Anything higher than an SPF 30, will cost more but won’t give you significantly more protection, experts say.
However, SPF doesn’t tell you whether it also blocks the sun’s UVA rays — the ones that go deeper into the skin and cause premature aging.
Dermatologists say both UVB and UVA radiation increase your risk of skin cancer.
To see if you're getting enough UVA protection, check the ingredient label. Look for titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or avobenzone, also called Parsol 1789.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are physical blocks that reflect sunlight. Many people don’t like them because they feel chalky. Parsol 1789 is a chemical that absorbs the UVA rays, but it quickly losses its effectiveness. An hour after putting it on, “much of its protection is gone,” Oseroff says, “but you have no way of knowing that."
This year, there’s something new, an ingredient called Helioplex. It stabilizes Parsol 1789 and keeps it from breaking down as quickly under the sun. Helioplex is now available in some Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens. All the dermatologists I spoke with say this is a big advance in sun protection. Even so, a product with Helioplex should still be reapplied as often as any other sunscreen.
But even the best sunscreen needs to be used properly to get the maximum protection possible.
“We recommend putting it on at least 20 to 30 minutes before going outdoors,” says Dr. Renata Jenkin, a dermatologist at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center. “Just like any other medication, it needs time to come on board,” she explains. “So put your sun block on before you go to the beach and not when you’re sitting on your beach towel.”
Experts say most people don’t use enough sunscreen, so they’re not getting the SPF figure listed on the package. For adequate coverage, an adult needs to use a full ounce of sunscreen, which is about two tablespoons.
For the best results, most sunscreens — even those that say they are “water resistant” — will need to be reapplied every two hours and immediately after swimming, the American Cancer Society says. Remember, most of what you apply will rub off when you dry yourself with a towel.
And one new product may even be hitting store shelves as early as next summer, according to Dr. John Swarztberg, head of the editorial board at the U.C. Berkeley Wellness Letter. A new ingredient called Mexoryl, developed by French cosmetic giant L’Oreal, has been found to be highly effective at absorbing UVA and maintain its effectiveness under the sun.
Sunscreens with Mexoryl have been available in Canada and Europe for years, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved its sale in the U.S. Swarztberg expects the FDA to approve Mexoryl within the next 6 to 12 months.
Pill lacks complete coverage
Miami-based Pure Pharmaceuticals, LLC, sells a nutritional supplement it says was “specifically designed for sun protection.” The “SunPill,” which costs about $1 a pill, contains a variety of vitamins and antioxidants that are supposed to help the body “defend itself against the sun.” But the company also says, “for maximum protection” you still need to use a sunscreen.
Pure Pharmaceuticals claims the SunPill "has been clinically proven to work." They sent me a copy of that study. It involved 12 subjects, between ages 19 to 58 years old, who completed just 8 weeks of testing.
According to Dr. Swartzberg at the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, there is “no good science” to substantiate the claims made for the SunPill and “no good theoretical reason why this should protect people.”
“I think people would be foolish to think they are getting any help from this product or think they can more safely go out in the sun,” he says.
Dr. Perry Robins, a New York City dermatologist, is one of two doctors who endorse the product on the SunPill Web site. “There is nothing in these pills that can be harmful and it can be helpful for some people,” he told me. What people? “Those who don’t like to put on sunscreen,” he said. Then he quickly added, “These pills should not be used alone.”
When asked about his relationship to Pure Pharmaceuticals, Robins said he was a “paid consultant for the company,” a fact not disclosed on the site.
By the way, Robins is also president and founder of the Skin Cancer Foundation. Does the Foundation endorse the SunPill? “We can’t comment on this product because we haven’t see the science behind it,” says Erin Mulvey, director of communications.
Dr. Derek Jones, a board certified dermatologist and assistant professor at UCLA, is also quoted on the SunPill site. He admits the research is limited and more testing needs to be done, but believes "the concept behind the pill is based on some solid science." Jones says he does not recommend the pill for all his patients, just those who "are really prone to skin cancer."
Dr. Oseroff at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute pulls no punches when asked about this product. “You can’t get enough antioxidants to the skin, where the oxidation is taking place, by taking a pill,” he says. “These sun pills are bogus.”