Sunscreens – Are You Buying Them Right?


Sunscreens – Are You Buying Them Right?

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I read a very interesting research paper yesterday –published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (read here- http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1504912) – detailing the current research trends in melanoma – a skin cancer condition. And the research paper in passing touched upon something of interest to all of us- namely how effective were sunscreens in preventing skin cancer. Now the two commonest skin cancer types are Carcinomas and Melanomas. A melanoma (often called a malignant melanoma because it spreads so easily and so fast) is a cancer of the melanin pigment producing cells of our body. Melanin is the protein which gives us our skin colour- dark or fair and and also protects us from the radiation of the sun- in effect its a natural sunscreen. Dark skinned people have an abundance of melanin pigment in their skin naturally and require lesser quantities of sunscreen to protect their skin, while fair skinned people with less melanin get tanned and sunburnt easily and also have more instances of getting skin cancer- melanomas. So with that small introduction let me get onto the meat of the matter.

 Sunscreens as we all know are classified as over the counter cosmetic products which do not need a doctors prescription. But we must remember that cosmetic companies make certain tall claims regarding sunscreens and their effects touting them as wonder drugs as they contain certain chemicals which, in effect prevent skin-tanning, anti-aging etc. Now the American Food and Drug administration has specified certain guidelines for sunscreens based on recent research

  • Anything less than SPF- 15 is no use for cancer prevention but can only be used for anti-tanning- so this means the FDA has now effectively barred anything which uses less than 15-SPF.
  • Anything above SPF-50 has been shown to be useless for skin protection- which means that more than that is an overkill and unnecessary.
  • Both cream and liquid based sunscreens work equally well when applied as a coating- but all of them last for only 90 mins to 120 mins for single application- which means you are protected for one and a half to two hours only with a single application. So covering up exposed areas with adequate clothing becomes important for long term prevention. And there goes my dream of ogling at all those bikini clad beach babes.
  • Any sunscreen which only protects against UV-A is not effective as anti-cancer but only for anti-tanning. Hence check out for the sunscreen prevents both UV-A and also UV-B rays from affecting the skin. So only broad-spectrum sunscreens prevent  skin cancer while others are just for the beach.
  • Ingredients like ecamsule and enzacamene come under banned substances – no longer safe and effective and hence check out that you are using a product which no longer contains these.
  • And finally remember that background radiation exists even indoor- so anything which promises anti-aging should protect your skin all the time and not just under direct sun exposure.

So these few pointers should help you choose the best sunscreen for avoiding skin cancer and not be taken in by the tall claims made by cosmetic companies.

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