Summer is well on its way and that means many people will head out for a little fun in the sun, which can be a wonderful way to get a healthy dose of vitamin D when managed in small amounts. A recommended 15 minutes per day of direct sunlight is what many medical experts claim to be the magic number for proper absorption. The confusion comes for many consumers in that, if a little sun is healthy, then why wouldn’t more be even better? Well, the truth of the matter is that too much of a good thing can sometimes be bad – especially when we are speaking specifically about prolonged sun exposure, which can be extremely harmful to skin tissue, causing premature aging and even skin cancer. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin famously stated that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Back then, he was speaking to Philadelphians about fire safety, however, his words could be applied here today in the context of how a high-quality sunscreen could protect the skin from damaging heat and burning rays coming directly from the sun.
Looking at the last 20 years of skin science, we can easily see the progression of better sun protection from the evolution of effective ingredient development, sun safety education for consumers, and even stricter FDA requirements implemented back in 2012. The FDA put measures in place to ensure broad-spectrum SPF protection from both UVA and UVB rays were followed before a company could sell over-the-counter sunscreens. As important as implementing this measure was, many people still have questions surrounding sunscreen safety.
How do the sunscreens of today work? What should one look for when reviewing the often confusing, scientific language listed on the back label of retail sunscreen? Hopefully, the following tidbits of information will be of assistance to help demystify the SPF selection process.
RISK OR NO RISK
According to scientific studies reviewed by the FDA, using a broad-spectrum SPF 15 or higher was shown to reduce the risk of skin cancers, sun burns, and premature skin aging when used in conjunction with other measures, such as limiting sun exposure time, avoiding sun during the highest risk times of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M., and using sun protective clothing such as hats or sunglasses. Our skin does have some natural ability to resist the sun, but it needs more help for prolonged exposure time and this is where a good sunscreen steps up and adds extra layers of protection to prohibit skin cell damage from ultraviolet radiation (UVA often referred to as aging rays and UVB sometimes called burning rays). According to skincancer.org, an SPF 30 allows about three percent of UVB rays through to skin, whereas an SPF of 50 only allows about two percent of those same rays through, which seems like a miniscule difference until it is understood that the SPF 30 allows about 50 percent more radiation absorption into skin. It is clear that a broad-spectrum sunscreen is necessary, but which type is best: a chemical sunscreen or a physical sunscreen?
Chemical sunscreen absorbs quickly into the skin to do its job of absorbing ultraviolet rays, converting them into heat and then releasing them from the body. This is useful for sports and swimming, where sweat and water-resistant formulas might be best as they are required to last for at least 40 minutes of water and sweat exposure. It is important to note that the general recommendation is to reapply chemical sunscreen every two hours or after any exposure to water. The other version of sunscreen is known as a physical sunscreen and is often a bit heavier, offering a reflective property to prevent ultraviolet rays from penetrating the skin. For more sensitive skin types, the latter tends to be a better fit because it is less irritating and more moisturizing. Gone are the days when a physical sunscreen showed up as a thick white film on the lifeguard’s nose. Today’s newer blends offer tinted versions with matte properties and even skin smoothing components. Skin protection never looked so good.
DECODING SPF INGREDIENT LABELS
Years back, many people avoided sunscreen usage because there were so many reactions reported. Thankfully, skin scientists of today have worked out the kinks and created much safer, less irritating formulas that not only protect, but actually perfect the skin’s appearance. A few noteworthy items professionals should look for when considering a sunscreen to retail or recommend at the spa are that the formula is fragrance-free, noncomedogenic, oil-free, and paraben-free. Limiting the risk of irritation is a definite plus and checking the above listed items off will certainly help. Many chemical sunscreens will have avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone as ingredients which will work to absorb the ultraviolet rays, transfer the heat, and then release it to help with the protection process. There has been controversy about many chemical sunscreen ingredients causing hormone disruption, so, if the client has any concerns in this regard, recommending a physical, mineral-based sunscreen which sits on top of the skin rather than absorbing into it may be a better option for them. Two of the minerals that may be listed on physical sunscreen labels might be titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, both of which offer the physical barrier properties to help reflect ultraviolet rays away from skin. These mineral protectants offer good protection with less irritation for more sensitive skin types.
What if clients want an organic holistic sunscreen, such as coconut oil, shea butter, or almond oil? Well, it is important to educate them that numerous studies conducted have shown that, while these types of oils do offer some protection, it only amounts to an SPF of around four to eight, which would not protect well against UVB and offers even less UVA protection, if any at all, when skin is exposed to sun for longer periods.
Educating the client on these matters is very important, as it will assist them in choosing a high-quality sunscreen that they know will provide better safety to help reduce the risk of skin cancer, which means it should include zinc oxide in the formula along with the other natural ingredients.
RETAILING AND EDUCATION
Many spas use a version of the Fitzpatrick scale skin typing test to help clients determine their individual sun reaction factors. This simply uses the person’s melanin content, genetic makeup, and past reactions to the sun to determine the probability of sunburn risk in relation to sun exposure time. There is a myth that darker skin types do not need sunscreen, since they do not burn as easy, but this is simply false, as the UVA rays – which are not the burning rays – still penetrate deep and can mutate skin cells causing damage and even numerous types of skin cancers. Once the skin type has been determined, the next factor to consider is lifestyle and reason for the sunscreen purchase. Obviously, if the client is intending to swim or play outdoor sports where they would perspire, a water-resistant, higher SPF might work better. If the client is mostly indoors and is rarely exposed to the sun except for driving to and from work, often finding their skin drier from an enclosed, air-conditioned environment, then maybe a physical tinted sunscreen with a bit more moisturizing factor would serve them well, doubling as sun protection and foundation for makeup application.
Listening to the client’s needs, discussing how lifestyle factors in, and offering a brief consultation on how to use sunscreen will definitely increase the sun safety smarts of the clientele. Most people are shocked to learn that it takes a full shot glass of sunscreen to comprehensively cover the exposed areas of skin for complete protection from the sun. It is important to educate clients on the risk factors of not using sun protection methods and explain to them how it could create avenues for hyperpigmentation, skin cell mutation, and could even lead to skin cancer. This exercise is not meant to scare the client, but rather educate them as to their options when it comes to sunscreens and offer them peace of mind so, when they head out for some fun in the sun, they can relax and enjoy their time knowing they are covered.
1 “Federal Register.” Government Publishing Office. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2011-06-17/pdf/2011-14766.pdf.
2 Chanchal Deep Kaur, S. S. “In vitro sun protection factor determination of herbal oils used in cosmetics.” Pharmacognosy 2, no. 1 (2010): 22-25. doi: 10.4103/0974-8490.60586.
3 Ward, William H. and Jeffrey M. Farma. Cutaneous Melanoma. Brisbane: Codon Publications, 2018.
4 “Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use; Final Rules.” Government Publishing Office. 2011.
5 Wang, Steven Q. “Ask the Expert: Does a High SPF Protect My Skin Better?” Skin Cancer Foundation. May 2018. https://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/ask-the-experts/does-a-higher-spf-sunscreen-always-protect-your-skin-better.