Sunscreen Revisited Sun And Our Healthy Response To It
A student asked me a series of questions about sunscreens and it really made
me think. I decided to spend some time gathering details, including a very
helpful trip to a local pharmacy. I thought the information would be good to
share. Her teacher has allowed me to use the questions. I'll post her
questions and the answers first. Then I'll expand on the individual points.
Her questions didn't allow for an overall discussion and an article on
sunscreens needs more details. Basically I want to share how the sun now
affects us. It didn't always do that. So what changed?
I found some interesting information about the sun rays and clouds, and how
the sun barriers actually work. I thought this would be a timely subject,
seeing we are coming into the summer season. Having said that, I know that
this newsletter goes to the entire world through a very large subscriber
base. So an Australian or Japanese reader would be having different weather.
However, through this research and my personal experience, I found that sun
protection is needed worldwide.
SUNSCREEN Q & A's
1) DOES THE AMOUNT OF COVERAGE THAT SUNSCREEN PROVIDES HAVE ANYTHING TO DO
WITH THE TYPE OF SKIN A PERSON MAY HAVE, WHETHER IT'S A SKIN PIGMENT OR
The amount and kind of coverage a sun barrier/screen
PROVIDES is the same for every person, if applied the same way. However, the
amount and type of protection a person RECEIVES is dependent on their skin
type and colour.
2) HOW DOES THE SKIN ABSORB SUNSCREEN
TO PROTECT FROM UV RAY'S?
There are two types of "protection": a block and an
absorbent substance. A solid block totally blocks out the radiation (rays)
to whatever part of the body is covered, but it helps NO other part not
covered! The other type is a chemical which is placed on to the skin,
allowed to be absorbed by the body for a time BEFORE exposing it to the
radiation (rays) and then this substance ABSORBS the rays.
3) WHAT ARE FREE RADICALS? WHY ARE THEY
DAMAGING TO THE HUMAN BODY?
The dictionary defines a "free radical as "a compound with
an unpaired (free) electron. It is unstable and reacts readily with other
molecules." In ordinary language means it is something that is not wanted in
your body. It creates a lot of problems because these free radicals are
forever running around trying to "pair up with something": to make the
molecule "complete or neutral". It is this "unpaired" state that causes a
lot of damage to our bodies. That damage is called "oxidative stress". So a
free radical is something you want to get out of your body whenever
possible. Anything not OF the natural body is considered BY the body as a
foreign item. The body will do its best to protect you from its harmful
4) WHY ARE TANS BAD FOR THE SKIN?
The very nature of the tanning practice is creating a lot
of free radicals. This creates short-term oxidative stress by increasing the
amount of the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun (natural or manmade) to
the body. All this is stored up for long-term damage...so the more immediate
damage you create, although it may just show up as a blister or more dark
skin, will accumulate for possible and very real problems as you get older.
The problems show up as aging skin (which our culture really dislikes) and
various types of cancers, as well as suppressing your body's natural defence
mechanisms: its immune system.
5) WHY DOESN'T SUNSCREEN SOMETIMES WORK?
I believe the sunscreen works all the time, unless you buy
real junk. It's the person using it who doesn't use it properly. It is a
matter of using the correct product in the correct way for the correct
6) DO ANTI-OXIDANTS HAVE ANYTHING TO DO
WITH HOW THE SUNSCREEN PROTECTS YOU? WHY OR WHY DOESN'T IT?
No, the sunscreen is made to certain specifications: to do
certain things in or on a body. It will do its job. The anti-oxidants are
protecting the body from the harmful ultraviolet rays by neutralizing the
free radicals that this tanning process produces. The sunscreen will either
stop the rays via a block, or help absorb the rays. If you didn't tan, you
wouldn't be creating free radicals and then you wouldn't need anti-oxidants
for this particular purpose. Remember also, that the actual sunscreen will
be interpreted by the body as a free radical. It is a chemical, therefore
not of the body.
7) DO CERTAIN TYPES OF WEATHER DEPEND
ON WHETHER OR NOT A SUNSCREEN COVERAGE IS NECESSARY?
Research is showing that because of many conditions, it is
now advisable to wear sunscreen most of the time. (That's why many cosmetics
have it included, but don't count on those to keep you protected.) Things
like the latitude and altitude, length of exposure, time of day, amount and
type of cloud, types of clothing worn, all contribute to allowing the UV
(both UVA and UVB) rays to come to you.
8) DOES IT MATTER WHAT KIND OF
SUNSCREEN ONE USES?
Yes. If you are going skiing, you would be covering
yourself differently than if you are spending the day at the beach or in a
tanning salon. All need protection.
9) WHAT DOES AN SPF RATING INDICATE?
It is a recognized rating that tells the buyer that you
could be exposed to sun radiation (rays) without harmful results from the
UVB rays, which are less harmful than UVA rays. The measure is the amount of
time allowed to prevent sunburn. So, roughly, an SPF ...a " Sun Protection
Factor" of 15 gives you 2 hours of protection. Please note though that this
does NOT prevent the underlying accumulation of radiation for possible
long-term problems. (But how many of us stop after two hours...and more
often if we are in the water, to re-apply our sunscreen?)
10) WHEN CHOOSING SUNSCREEN, DOES IT
MATTER IF IT'S A LOTION OR A CREAM?
Not really, but there are some important decisions to be
made. There are a lot of sprays on the market now. Keep in mind that the
action of spraying this product onto your body, will, without any doubt, get
this product also into your breathing system. If you have any allergies or
asthma, this could be a very real problem.
Please use this information wisely. If you don't know
which product to buy, speak with the pharmacist in the drugstore. They are a
free, confidential source for all and any health questions about
pharmaceutical products. It's their job to guide you and they are always
willing to do so.
The sun is natural and our bodies are natural, so why are we having a
conflict? What's the big "to do" about sun protection? If you know of anyone
who is allergic to the sun, you will know how inconvenient and awkward it is
to stay out of it at all costs. So sun protection becomes important. We want
to enjoy the sun and its benefits, but not have the harmful effects. What
harmful effects? I am going to give you some very basic, but interesting
information. But this will not be for the academic who wants precise
details. (There are many very helpful sites on the Web.) I just want to
describe how I find it easy to understand why we need sun protection and how
it works. Sun is wonderful and warm and comfortable, and it used to be
healthy to get some "sunshine and vitamins" from it. But we now know that's
not the case any longer.
The rays of the sun are very harmful and we could
not survive in their direct path. These rays are known as ultraviolet (UV)
rays. The two that we are most concerned about are the UVA and UVB. And the
UVAs are found to be more harmful than the UVBs. Luckily for us, Nature has
created its own filters, thus screening out some of the harmful rays. Those
screens include the ozone layer and cloud formations. The ozone layer should
be nice and "solid" and therefore would be a effective barrier. Alas, that
is no longer the case. There are many "holes" and thinning out area from
damage. Our lifestyle demands have changed the world and we need to respond
logically by protecting ourselves. Some cloud formations give a lot of
protection while others appear to, but don't. So a "hazy" day doesn't
present much protection, but looks deceivingly "safe".
Nature has also given us different effects in different settings. For
instance, if you lived close to the Equator, you will be more exposed to
these rays or radiation. Therefore you need more protection than someone
living farther away from the equator. That's latitude. Then altitude effects
you also: the higher the altitude, the more exposure to the rays. I figured
you are getting closer to the actual sun itself. Next come the type of rays
"available" to us. We need to pay attention to these UV rays. Rays also
stand for radiation. And as already mentioned, some radiation is more
harmful than other.
Normally the sun provides us with sunlight, warmth, and a healthy
environment when all is well. But all is not well with the ozone layer: the
most protective part. And exposure to these rays or radiation is very
harmful. One of the problems, of course, is that we have no way of knowing
when the invisible UV rays are present. This is where the UV Index comes
into play. The National Weather Service has a great site at
Index shows us the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the earth's
surface at (that day's) noon Standard time. This reading considers the
presence of clouds, latitude, altitude, time of the year, time of the day,
plus the total amount of ozone above you. So the greater the distance you
are from the sun (lower altitude), the higher the latitude, and the more
cloud, the lower the UV index: the safer the exposure. Conversely the higher
the altitude, the lower the latitude, the less cloud: the higher reading.
And did you know that snow, sand, and water all reflect sunlight, thus
increasing the UV levels? That's why vacationing in hot climates or snow
areas requires a lot of protection. On top of all of this, we are told that
the presence of destructive rays or amount of radiation is highest in all
areas between 10 AM and 4 PM. So for starters that time outside should
either be avoided or protected most of all.
So if we want to prevent problems, we need to create some sort of protection
from rays coming into our bodies. I say "into" as opposed to "onto" because
the long term effect or damage will be done to the inner cells, and this
damage accumulates over time. I still recall the day the explosion at
Chernobyl occurred. Although I had done absolutely nothing different, my
future health could well be under attack. It brought home to me just how
fragile our lives are. We can't control the sun, but we can control several
factors that allow us to use the benefits of the sun, safely. And ultimately
what makes the sun so dangerous? It's the damage from these rays in the
short term and the long term. Nature has also given us some natural
protection in our skin: both with the actual covering and with melanin: a
substance that manufactures the colouring process. But as we see shortly,
that will turn into a non-benefit if we are not careful. A change in the
colour (tan) means that your body has been unable to cope with the amount of
sun it has been exposed to and it has produced extra amounts of melanin in
an attempt to stop further damage. Here are some risk factors to be aware
of. Fair skin colour, blond or red hair colour, (natural) freckles, moles,
or birthmarks, or a family history of skin cancer, non-cancerous growths on
the skin, history of immune conditions, severe skin damage including burns,
history of serious childhood sunburns, large amounts of sun exposure as a
child, regular tanning. The skin has two main layers: the (outer layer)
epidermis and the (inner layer) dermis. The epidermis is mostly made up of
flat, scale-like cells called squamous cells. Round cells called basal cells
lie under the squamous cells in the epidermis. The lower part of the
epidermis also contains melanocytes, which produces melanin. The dermis
contains blood vessels, lymph vessels, hair follicles, and glands.
The longer wavelengths, known as ultraviolet A (UVA),
however, can penetrate the skin and damage connective tissue at deeper
levels, even if the skin's surface feels cool. It is important to limit
exposure to both UVA and UVB.
A tan is a sign of skin damage: not health. A sunburn causes tenderness pain
swelling and blistering. Sun exposure leads to skin aging. The skin becomes
wrinkled, saggy, leathery, and blotchy. Tanning also damages the deeper
layers of the skin and results in the loss of elasticity. This is not part
of the normal aging process. So now that we know what the skin can do to
protect us, let's look at how we can protect it. The first thing to decide
is what part you want to protect...just the nose and ears for skiing? Or the
entire body for beach fun. Wide hat or head cover, including the neck, is
highly recommended. Clothes if not beachwear, should be loose but have a
tight weave. (A loose "weave" will allow the UV rays to get through.) Light-coloured
clothing will reflect the rays: dark colours will absorb the rays without
passing them to you. Always look for and rest in shade if at all possible.
Create your own if needed. Sun glasses that provide almost 100% UVA and UVB
protection are crucial for your eye safety.
We acknowledge that the individual person can do little to influence the
power of the natural sun, but you can diminish the harm it causes by using
sunscreens or chemicals protectors: barriers products. A sunscreen is any
product that intercepts the UV rays for you. This is all about prevention.
It's very interesting to read that many people know all about prevention,
yet only do it for their children. They feel they don't need it! So the
children are very fortunate. Fortunately cosmetic companies see the value of
sunscreens in some of their products. After all, they are in the
"anti-aging" business and would be foolish not to enhance their products.
But those sunscreens should not be counted on to give any major amount of
How can you protect yourself and still have fun in the sun? You want to
choose the most convenient products to apply it the most convenient way to
give yourself the most benefit: to give yourself a sense of confidence in
your sun safety. Otherwise you won't protect yourself. You simply won't take
the time to do it.
Let's go into the two basic types of protection. You can choose between a
"sun block" and a "sunscreen". Both give protection for different purposes.
A block is a whitish opaque cream, put on the nose, ears, face, neck, or
back of hands or you can "spot" certain areas. The most common sun blocks
are made of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. You see skiers with white
noses...a sign of a smart skier! This block works by "blocking out" the UV
rays and deflects them from the body but only that part that has the block
on it. Nothing is absorbed. Nothing else will be protected, unless it has
covering of some sort. And don't be stingy with the amount you apply.
Otherwise the whole exercise will be for naught! Don't waste your money: do
it properly. If allergies are a concern, physical sun blocks such as zinc
oxide, provide good coverage, are waterproof, and most importantly, cause
fewer allergic or photoallergic (light) reactions. Zinc oxide is recommended
for the sensitive areas of a baby's skin such as the nose and BELOW the
eyes. The skin does NOT absorb these products. So they must be washed off
with gentle care.
Sunscreens are not all alike. Just as all vitamins are not alike, neither
are these. It all has to do with the quality of the ingredients, their
manufacturing process, standards followed and the intent of the company.
Let's look at SPF and what it means. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. A
product that is labeled SPF 15 provides 2 hours of sun protection and is
effective for most active people, providing there is no "water" involvement.
If there is, more frequent applications MUST be done. The water washes the
sunscreen off. Lotions or sprays labeled SPF 30 are expected to provide a
full 4 hours of protection. There is actually a formula to calculate the
exact time it represents, but for our purposes, this should be enough. SPF
products seem to come in 15, 30, 45, and 60 "denominations".
The most important factor in choosing sunscreen is its ability to protect
the skin from both UVA and UVB ultraviolet rays. This is radiation and
contributes to premature wrinkling and sunburn. Both UVA and UVB contribute
to different types of skin cancer (squamous cell, basal cell, and melanoma).
It is important to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen, with at least an SPF
(Sun Protection Factor) of 15 and use it all year round.
The main ingredients in sunscreens are chemical absorbers such as PABA (para-aminobenzoic
acid) and PABA esters. Products containing PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)
effectively block UVB rays, but the ingredient may stain clothing and could
cause allergic reactions in some users, particularly children. Make sure
your sunscreen says "PABA-Free." I found "Parsol" on many labels, but can't
find anything about this product to indicate its effectiveness.
Another important aspect of a well-formulated sunscreen is its ability to
moisturize the skin while it protects. In addition, the sunscreens
containing antioxidants to fight the effects of free-radical damage would be
When we speak of damage it always means the creation of many free radicals.
And an accumulation of free radicals leads to oxidative stress: a very
undesirable condition, to in your body. Your antidote? Antioxidants. And
like sunscreens, not all antioxidants are the same. For an excellent
comparison, visit Lyle MacWilliam's site
http://www.comparativeguide.com/ and purchase his latest nutritional supplement
Here is a list of desirable "functions" of your sunscreen: oil-free alcohol
free, water swat resistant, UVA, UVB 15 (minimum), PABA-free, hydrating or
moisturizing, Vitamin A &E these are antioxidants and help fight the free
radicals damage & prevent premature skin aging), non-greasy, non comedogenic,
(won't clog pores), cologne & fragrance-free. It would be helpful if they
are "rubproof". I found many different types of sunscreens: lotions, balms,
creams, and sprays. I want to caution you about the sprays. If you have any
asthma or respiratory problems, please be very careful using these. They get
sprayed onto your body. This very action spreads the chemicals around,
including your nose and mouth. And eyes. Aerosols are especially formulated
to penetrate their goal. You might be better served by checking with your
pharmacist and or doctor. Just because it's a sunscreen and not a "drug",
doesn't make it safe. Don't buy on price...or do buy on price. "Invest" in
your protection. It may cost a bit more, but the results most likely will be
After your day in the sun, you should really care for your skin again. You
want to minimize the effects by cooling the skin down. Don't use any
alcohol-based products. They will only dry out the skin further. Check for
sun damage all over your body. Apply a cool lotion, but not a greasy cream.
Your skin needs to breathe and not be plugged up. The warmth and redness of
the skin indicates ongoing "burning/damage" and this can only be halted by
something cool. Even a cool washcloth, applied gently will help. But the
lotion would be more comfortable.
After all this information about skin care, it's important to realize that
skin isn't the only part of the body that is susceptible to damage. It can
lead to eye damage, including cataracts, and blindness. The immune system is
very much at risk and with it compromised or not functioning at its best,
your body can't fight off disease or infections. And some conditions, such
as cold sores chicken pox lupus, etc., become worse with sun exposure.
Apply sunscreen generously; a layer too thin can diminish its effectiveness.
Make sure your skin is dry when you apply it. (Your warm hands will help
spread it.) Don't forget sensitive areas like your neck, cheeks, nose, ears,
bald spots, the backs of your calves, and the crooks of your knees. Use lip
balm with an SPF of 15. Reapply sunscreen as a long day progresses, as often
as every two hours if you're sweating heavily. And more frequently if you
are doing water sports. Realize that sunscreens and sun blocks are not
miracle shields giving you limitless time in the sun. Tightly woven clothing
is effective in shielding skin from the sun. Some clothes are chemically
treated and boast their own SPF.
Wear a hat with a broad brim; this will protect your
tender ears and face.
Apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before you step outside. Time allows the
product's active ingredients to absorb into your skin. Using a
water-resistant or waterproof product? Find out how long it lasts by reading
the label; reapply when that time period (40 minutes? 60? 90?) runs out. If
you're using prescription medicines, ask your doctor or pharmacist if there
could be any contra-indications or reaction to the sunscreen. Be especially
vigilant in applying and re-applying sunscreen on your child. Sunscreen (and
prolonged sun exposure) is discouraged for infants 6 months old or younger.
When applying sunscreen on children, first rub it in
your hands, then apply it to your child. Check with your dermatologist: new
research ahs suggested changes. Older explorers should select sunscreens
that include moisturizers. Replace sunscreens yearly to be sure their active
ingredients are indeed
By Karin Henderson - Nurse, Retired.