Sunscreen, which one?

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We all love to feel the warmth of the summer sun on our faces and bodies.  People say that the sun adds a glow to our skin.   But the question I often hear at my plastic surgery clinic in Toronto is whether that glow is healthy or is it radiation damage from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays?

Is sunscreen safe to use?  How much or how little exposure should we be getting from the sun on a daily basis without doing skin damage has many of us confused…

Most of us do not know exactly what ultraviolet radiation is.  We know that there are UVA and UVB rays and if you over expose your skin, a sunburn will occur.  Over the years, this overexposure to the sun will result in wrinkles, age spots and various skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanomas.   Each can be disfiguring and the melanoma deadly.   UVA and UVB also can suppress the immune system which reduces your bodies fighting abilities.

UVA and UVB are parts of the electromagnetic light spectrum that penetrates the protective atmospheric ozone layer and reaches the earth from the sun.  The UVA and UVB are shorter wavelengths than regular light and are invisible to the human eye.   It is these rays that damage the skin’s cellular DNA which can turn into skin cancers.  UV rays are now proven to be the main cause of melanoma, which can lead to death if not detected in its early stages.

We can’t live our lives in a bubble avoiding the sun, but we can be sun smart.  Understanding the UVA and UVB rays is the first step in protecting ourselves against the damage.

UVA accounts for 95% of the UV radiation that reaches the Earth.  Less intense than UVB, UVA rays are equally present through all seasons and can penetrate both clouds and glass.  UVA penetrates deeper into the skin and is the major player when it comes to aging the skin.

UVA also damages skin cells called keratinocytes (in the basal layer of the dermis) which start the development of basal cell and squamous cell cancers.

Tans are caused by exposure to the UVA rays.  Tans happen when your body is struggling to prevent the DNA damage which can lead to skin cancer.  Unfortunately your body often loses the struggle.

Tanning beds have 12 times the strength of the sun when it comes to UVA rays.  People who use tanning beds on a regular basis have 2.5 times the possibility of developing squamous cell carcinoma  and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma.    People who have been tanning since their teens have an increased risk of melanoma of 75%.

UVB rays cause what is known as a “sunburn.”  UVB damages the most superficial top layers of the epidermis  and is the major cause of skin cancer.  The strength of the UVB rays vary from season to season and even time of day.  For snowboarders and snow skiers, they get a double dose of UVB as the rays will bounce of the shiny snow and ice surfaces.  Without proper protection, you will get hit twice by the UVB rays, once directly from the sun and another hit as it reflects off the snow and ice.   However, UVB does not penetrate through glass as the UVA does.

How can we protect ourselves against the UVA and UVB rays and still enjoy the outdoors?  The easiest and simplest way is to make sunscreen part of our daily skin care routine, wear sun protective clothing and be sun smart.

The early civilizations highly prized light, fair, untanned skin as a symbol of beauty, wealth and class.   The Egyptians would use extracts of rice, jasmine and lupine to prevent the skin from becoming darker.

The earliest synthetic sunscreen was first produced in 1928 and the first commercially sold was in 1936 by the company L’Oreal.   One of the most well-known sunscreens was produced in 1944 by the US military for pilots and soldiers in the Pacific tropics during World War II.   The sunscreen was known as Red Vet Pet.  Along with being very sticky, Red Vet Pet had limited effectiveness.  Coppertone bought the product, improved its texture and color and made it commercially appealing.   Coppertone then sold it to the public under the “Coppertone Girl” and later re-branded the product as Bain De Soleil.

The term SPF or Sun Protection Factor was developed by Swiss chemist Franz Greiter.   Greiter enjoyed climbing the Swiss mountains and it was a sunburn that inspired him to develop the real first effective sunscreen in 1946.  Later in 1974, Greiter adapted calculations from 2 other scientists and introduced the “SPF” factor which is still used today.  The first sunscreen had an SPF of 2.

What exactly does the SPF rating mean?  SPF measures the fraction of sunburn protection to the skin.  So this means if you normally burn in 10 minutes, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will give you protection for 150 minutes without the sun burning the skin. But…to have full effectiveness, sunscreen must be re-applied every 2 hours or every 120 minutes. This rule of effectiveness applies to all higher SPF ratings.

As discussed earlier, there are both UVA and UVB wavelengths which cause skin aging and skin cancer.  In order to protect your skin from both wavelengths, your sunscreen must be labelled Broad-Spectrum.  Just a few years ago, Broad-Spectrum sunscreens were not created equal.   Some did not provide as much protection against UVA even though labeled as Broad-Spectrum.   Titanium Dioxide is a good example of a sunscreen product that has good protection for UVB and does not completely shield against UVA.   Research has shown that the best shield for both UVA and UVB is zinc oxide.    Since 2012, the FDA and Health Canada require all sunscreens to have equal UVA and UVB protection when labeled as Broad Spectrum.

For babies and toddlers, the best protection is to avoid direct sun during the peak hours of 10 AM until 2 PM.  Wearing protective clothing, a hat with a brim and sunglasses designed for the smaller heads is a must.   If over the age of 6 months, liberally use a broad spectrum sunscreen of at least 30.  To avoid irritating baby’s soft skin, choose a sunscreen that has inorganic fillers like zinc oxide.  Make sure that every inch of exposed skin is covered and do not forget tiny ears or back of necks.   Again, you must re-apply sunscreen every 2 hours.   Remember… a serious sun burn when young will seriously increase your child’s risk of skin cancer.

Just a note to the wise, melanoma is currently the second most common cancer among 20- to 29-year-old women, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, the incidence of melanoma has increased 690 percent since 1950 and the death rate from melanoma has increased by 165 percent during this same period.  Male melanoma rates are now catching up!

Obviously, we carry at VISAGE Clinics an excellent broad-spectrum sunscreen by Dr. Obagi with an excellent UVA and UVB block.

Remember: There’s no such thing as a healthy tan, and that’s what people need to understand.

by Joyce Palmer & Dr. Marc DuPere

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