Many experts recommend sunscreen as a way to reduce the harm
caused by sunlight. Sunscreens contain a variety of ingredients
that can absorb and block UV-A or UV-B rays.
What Does the Research Say?
Studies have mostly found that using sunscreen can decrease skin cancer rates.
In particular, one large clinical trial conducted in Australia instructed some of the study participants to apply sunscreen every day, while the rest of the participants were free to decide when they put on sunscreen. After 4.5 years, the people who used daily sunscreen were 40% less likely to have SCC, the second most common skin cancer type.
After 15 years, the researchers followed up with the study participants and found that they were also less likely to experience melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. Other, smaller studies have also found that using sunscreen can reduce rates of SCC and of actinic keratosis, a condition that can develop into skin cancer.
Interestingly, this clinical trial did not find that sunscreen helped protect against BCC — people who used daily sunscreen and people who did not developed this skin cancer at similar rates. Experts speculate that this may be because BCCs take a very long time to develop. Longer studies are needed in order to determine whether sunscreen can prevent BCC.
Research has also found that sunscreen can help prevent wrinkles, uneven skin coloration, and spider veins (small blood vessels that appear close to the skin’s surface, leading to reddish lines on the skin).
Overall, experts such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD) recommend using sunscreen when spending time in the sun.
Who Should Use Sunscreen?
Everyone should put on sunscreen before going outside. Even people without skin cancer risk factors can develop the condition, so sunscreen can help all people, regardless of their age, race, and other factors.
However, experts recommend not applying sunscreen to infants younger than six months. These children may be more likely to experience a skin rash or other side effects. Instead, keep your newborn in the shade, dress them in clothing and hats that cover their skin, and make sure they stay well-hydrated with formula or milk.
Sunscreen should be worn every day for the best protection. UV rays can pass through clouds, so you can still experience sun damage even if it’s not a sunny day. Additionally, you are still exposed to UV light during the daytime even when it’s cold outside.
What SPF Should You Use?
Sunscreens are rated based on their sun protection factor (SPF). The SPF measures how much UV light the sunscreen protects against. The higher the SPF, the more you are protected.
The CDC recommends using at least SPF 15 sunscreen, while AAD recommends SPF 30. Some experts believe that higher SPF ratings may be more helpful, because people often don’t apply enough sunscreen. For example, if you are using SPF 30 sunscreen and only apply half the recommended amount, you may only be getting the equivalent of SPF 15 protection.
The CDC and AAD also suggest making sure your sunscreen protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays. It also helps to use sunscreen that is water resistant if you’re planning on swimming or think you may end up sweating a lot.
Tips for Applying Sunscreen
Make sure you’re putting on enough sunscreen. Experts recommend using an ounce of sunscreen over your entire body. This is enough sunscreen to fill one shot glass. Make sure to cover all of your skin, including your ears, the tops of your feet, and — if you have short hair — your scalp. Additionally, use lip balm with an SPF of at least 30 to protect the skin of your lips.
Sunscreen works best when it is applied at least 15 minutes before you go outside. Reapply every couple of hours, or after you swim, towel off, or sweat.
Is Sunscreen Safe to Use?
Sunscreen can occasionally lead to reactions such as stinging, burning, or a rash. They may also clog the pores. In some cases, people may be allergic to certain sunscreen ingredients, but this is rare.
Some people worry that certain sunscreen ingredients may not be safe if they are absorbed into the bloodstream. In particular, there has been concern about two common ingredients — oxybenzone (BP-3) and octinoxate (OMC). So far, studies have not found any strong links between these ingredients and health problems, although researchers are continuing to look into this area.
It is important to note that sunscreens containing BP-3 or OMC have been banned in Hawaii and in Key West, Florida. This is because these ingredients may harm coral reefs and negatively impact plants and animals that live in the water. Avoiding sunscreens with these ingredients may be better for the environment.
Beyond Sunscreen: Keep Yourself Safe From the Sun