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Sunscreen is the staple of summer safety for all ages. Every summer we see people come in to the ER because of severe sun burns. This is no joke. Some of these can be as bad as second or third degree and require intense burn treatment, sometimes at specialized burn centers.  In addition, it is well known that prolonged exposure to the sun and sun burns can contribute to developing skin cancer.

Living in Florida, sunscreen is basically a part of my wardrobe. I heed the advice of my healthcare colleagues to protect my family from the burning rays of the mighty sun. However, I never gave much thought to the type of sunscreen I was lathering on a daily basis. Usually I purchased something inexpensive as long as it was at least SPF 30. Then one day I was diligently applying liberal amounts on my kids and I thought, what is in this stuff that makes it such a defensive agent against the ball of fire 93 million miles from our planet.

I have always bought  separate sunscreen for my kids. On that fateful day, I looked at the “kids” bottle and compared it to the adult bottle and noticed that the ingredients were drastically different. The kids’ sunscreen had only two ingredients, Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. The adult version on the other hand had 5 active ingredients: Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone. I suddenly had a terrible college chemistry flashback and wondered what these chemicals were and why the two types of sunscreen were so different.

I feverishly began to research and what I discovered was that there are physical sunblocks and chemical sunblocks.  A physical sunblock deflects the sun’s radiation rays away from the skin while chemical sunblocks absorb the radiation before it affects the skin. I researched the majority of the most common chemicals in the chemical sunblocks trying to understand why they would not be ingredients in the kids’ sunscreen. What I found was that most of the chemicals are naturally occurring, however just like with many pharmaceuticals, safety for use with children or for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers was “likely” or had a “high probability” of being ok. In other words, there probably is not enough research on the use of these ingredients in these populations because there might be a possibility of harm.

An ingredient like Zinc Oxide however has been used for thousands of years all around the world for multiple purposes. Today we use it for not only sunblock but also in creams for diaper rash, other skin irritations and in vitamin form. Zinc is actually very important and necessary for reproduction, healthy cell functioning and support of immune system through white blood cell development.

The most important piece of information I learned though was that most of the chemicals only protect against UV-B rays. Dermatologists recommend broad spectrum sunscreens that protect against UV-A and UV-B. This is why there are multiple chemicals in most adult chemical sunscreens. The physical sunscreens alone however are broad spectrum by nature because they deflect the sun’s rays.

Here is a chart from the Skin Cancer Foundation that outlines the most common FDA approved chemicals used in sunscreen and the protection they offer:

 

Active Ingredient / UV Filter Name

Maximum FDA-approved Concentration, %

Range of Protection

Aminobenzoic acid

15

UVB

Avobenzone

3

UVA1

Cinoxate

3

UVB

Dioxybenzone

3

UVB, UVA2

Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX)

3

UVA2

Ensulizole (Phenylbenzimidazole Sulfonic Acid)

4

UVB

Homosalate

15

UVB

Meradimate (Menthyl Anthranilate)

5

UVA2

Octocrylene

10

UVB

Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)

7.5

UVB

Octisalate (Octyl Salicylate)

5

UVB

Oxybenzone

6

UVB, UVA2

Padimate O

8

UVB

Sulisobenzone

10

UVB, UVA2

Titanium dioxide

25

Inorganic/Physical
(UVB, UVA2)

Trolamine salicylate

12

UVB

Zinc oxide

25

Inorganic/Physical
(UVB, UVA2, UVA1

 

No matter which kind of sunscreen you choose, make sure that it is SPF 30 or greater. SPF is mostly a measure of the number of cancer causing UV-B rays that are blocked. Using at least SPF 30 blocks 97% of these harmful rays. While there are health benefits to sun exposure such as Vitamin D, this should be in small doses. So love the warmth of summertime, but be safe and protect yourself from potential skin cancer each and every day.