Sunburn protection is traditionally associated with staying indoors especially during intense daylight hours from 10am to 3pm, wearing sun screen, and covering the body with clothing such as hats to block the sun from hitting the skin. Ultraviolet light from the sun is the form of solar radiation that causes most of this damage, ranging from evident sunburns to hidden but accumulating genetic damage that can cause skin cancer. The common sun protection methods mentioned above can be very effective at preventing sunburns and reducing damage to the skin.
In recent years, consumers have come to depend upon the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ratings printed on sunscreen products sold in the United States. People think that SPF 30 provides more protection from sun damage than SPF 15 and may make purchases accordingly. Unfortunately, this perception can be totally inaccurate due to the egregiously flawed design of the US Food and Drug Administration’s SPF rating system.
Sun Damage Occurs From Multiple Parts of Ultraviolet Light Spectrum
Much of the damage done to the body by sun exposure happens in the upper layers of skin. Scientists have broken up the ultraviolet light spectrum into three bands based upon the wavelength of the light. UV-A is the longer wavelength and more capable of penetrating the atmosphere, clothes, and even beyond the upper layers of skin. UV-C is a shorter wavelength that is largely absorbed by the atmosphere before reaching the ground. UV-B is in between, capable of getting through the atmosphere and some clothes but not capable of penetrating much below the outermost skin where it causes sunburn.
In particular, UV-A and UV-B wavelengths are the main culprits in health dangers from sun exposure. UV-B light in particular is the primary cause of sunburns, sometimes severe enough to result in blistering or peeling of skin. UV-A light penetrates deeper into the body. Both types of solar radiation cause oxidation and create free radicals that damage cells and chemicals in the body. Cellular DNA itself may be directly damaged by UV light or indirectly by oxidation and free radicals triggered by the UV exposure.
Sunscreens Don’t Work as Well As FDA SPF Rating States
A major problem with sunscreens sold in the US is that even if you apply and reapply sunscreen lotions per directions, many do not work as well as seemingly indicated by the SPF rating. This is because the US FDA SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating system only considers UV-B radiation and completely ignores UV-A, even though it is believed to constitute about 90% of the total sun radiation exposure. While UV-B causes sunburns, UV-A can penetrate deeper into the body to cause DNA and oxidation damage, creating free radicals that can spread damage further. UV-A can do this below the upper layers of the skin affected by UV-B radiation. Many sunscreens can block UV-B well and thus prevent sunburn while not doing much to block UV-A. The result can be accumulating levels of damage that may not be evident due to absence of sunburns that are generally caused by UV-B. After decades, this hidden damage may be first noticed when a skin cancer tumor develops.
Resolving this problem requires selecting sunscreens that have ingredients that work for UV-A protection and preferably have been tested to do so. Such ingredients include avobenzone, oxybenzone, zinc oxide, and titanium oxide. Even well-known sunscreen brands often don’t include these UV-A protection ingredients. The different ingredients have advantages and disadvantages including varying cost, irritation to the skin (more likely with benzones), breakdown of effectiveness by sunlight exposure (benzones), and protection from both UV-A and UV-B light (oxides, but not benzones). Given the different qualities of performance, it’s best to select sunscreens that include multiple ingredients that protect against both UV-A and UV-B radiation.
Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are caused primarily by a particular spectrum of sunlight called ultraviolet B, or UV-B. It is UV-B radiation that also causes sunburn. The FDA’s SPF rating system rates sunscreen for protection against UV-B light, but not against ultraviolet A (UV-A) light.
UV-A, the longer-wavelength ultraviolet light, penetrates deeper than UV-B through the outer portion of the skin. This is very important, because UV-A damage is largely responsible for premature aging of the skin. Moreover, UV-A light exposes the melanocytes, which are the pigment-producing cells in the skin, to damage that can potentially result in malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
Thus, despite slathering on sunscreen and not developing a sunburn (because of protection against burning UV-B rays), we can still develop a light tan because the UV-A rays are penetrating the skin.
To protect your skin, you need broad-spectrum protection against both UV-A and UV-B rays. You cannot rely solely on the SPF rating system, because it provides information only on UV-B protection.
The only way to be sure that your sunscreen provides UV-A protection is to read the label and make sure it contains effective UV-A blocking agents, which include avobenzone, oxybenzone, zinc oxide, and/or titanium oxide.
FDA Fixing SPF System More Than A Decade Late
As with so much of the misinformation and corruption endemic to the US FDA, the knowledge that the SPF system is broken isn’t a new thing. The FDA acknowledged the flaws in the system in 1998 to 2000 but a decade later still has not corrected the problems. In much of its public information on SPF, as you can see at its web page Sun Protection Factor , the FDA fails to mention anything to the public about sun damage from UV-A light.
Americans have applied only partially effective sunscreen for almost 10 years although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration knew that the products did not block dangerous radiation and sat on regulations that could have corrected the problem, administration documents show.
Countless beach-goers and outdoorsmen have used sunscreen, believing they were protecting themselves from solar ultraviolet rays, but most sunscreens block only ultraviolet B rays and not ultraviolet A, dermatologists said.
The B rays cause sunburn, while the A portion of the spectrum damages deeper layers of skin.
Overexposure to sunlight causes more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer every year in the United States. This includes 111,900 cases of melanoma, which kills about 8,000 people in the United States annually, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
“People aren’t aware that sun protection factor (SPF) relates only to UVB,” said Marla Campbell, associate clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of Connecticut Health Center.
“There are no standards for UVA. The FDA proposed label changes in 1999. The average consumer doesn’t know about this,” she said.
Although FDA announced revised label changes to address the issue in 1999, it then promptly sat on the issue for years until growing pressure from state governments and Congress caused to issue new proposed guidelines in 2007 requiring a star rating system on sunscreen products to reflect their ability to block UV-A light. But many consumers have supplies of sunscreens without any UV-A ratings on them. Further, supplies of such older products still exist within distribution channels more than a decade after awareness of the SPF rating system’s flaws. So you may still be confronted with old sunscreens without UV-A protection when you go shopping.
FDA Corruption and Sloth Endanger Public Health
The problems with the sunscreen SPF rating system are one of the many dangers the FDA has created for the public by spreading false and misleading information to lull the public into a false sense of safety. As we discussed in January 2009 in our article High Fructose Corn Syrup is Dangerous for Many Reasons , the FDA knew for at least four years prior to the information going public of the problem of widespread mercury contamination in the US food supply due to outdated chemical plants that contaminate high fructose corn syrup with mercury.
It’s not the FDA that made this information public, either. The lead FDA researcher who did the research which uncovered the problem in 2005 couldn’t get the agency to do anything about it, so she quit her job and replicated her research independently outside the FDA in an attempt to educate the public about the danger. The FDA still won’t push for upgrading the chemical plants responsible for the contamination, apparently preferring to endanger the public health to save big food companies some money.
Much of the public understands that the FDA is a corrupt and ineffective organization that is driven by corporate greed and Congressional bias. As we discussed in our article FDA Incompetence and Bias Lead to Poor Ratings & Results , the FDA was recently pleased to find that 47% of the public thinks it is doing a poor job as that’s an improvement from earlier surveys. The agency itself admits in reports on its own competency that it can’t do it’s job. The FDA blocks access to effective treatments that are inexpensive and proven but compete with pricey big pharmaceutical products that help keep FDA employees working, and covers up food and health dangers.
The agency’s supposed mission is protecting public health, but that is far from the truth. Its real mission appears to be something more driven by greed, money, and political bias than anything well-intentioned. Considering this sorry state of affairs, you would do well to not trust anything coming out of the FDA without verifying it against multiple more objective sources that have researched the same drugs, foods, and products such as sunscreens.
Select Sunscreens Carefully
Many of the sunscreen products on the market with “impressive” SPF ratings of 15 or above don’t in reality work very well at protecting the skin from damage due to the lack of UV-A blocking ingredients and other flaws that can lead to skin irritation caused by the products themselves:
1. Buy new sunscreen annually, and keep in mind that EWG (Environmental Working Group) determined that 84% of the 785 sunscreens on the market with an SPF rating of 15 or higher offer inadequate protection.
2. Look for those labeled “broad-spectrum.”
3. Select only the top brands, as it’s been shown that 80% of the almost 1,000 brand-name products “contain chemicals that may pose health hazards or don’t adequately protect skin from the sun’s damaging rays.”
Don’t Rely On Sunscreens Alone
Even if you find a good sunscreen, it’s smart to avoid much of the sun’s intensity during peak daylight hours by staying indoors or under shade. Also consider combining these methods with nutritional supplements that help prevent and repair oxidative damage to the body. Some of the more common nutrients including vitamin A (use the beta carotene form to avoid vitamin A toxicity risks), vitamin C, vitamin E, inositol, and inositol hexaphosphate (IP6) which are all excellent antioxidants and are inexpensive plus have many other health benefits.
If you spend a lot of time in the sun, you should also look into lesser known nutrients that are claimed to be especially effective for skin protection from the sun. Two such nutrients are astaxanthin, discussed in the web article Sunscreen In A Pill: Dermatologists Discover Sun Protection Under The Sea , and an extract from the sun-loving fern polypodium leucotomos (also known as phlebodium aureum) .
Astaxanthin is widely available from many nutritional supplement manufacturers. It is often sold as a nutrient for eye health, but as discussed in the article mentioned above can also help protect the skin from sun damage. I’ve personally taken from 4mg to 8mg of astaxanthin per day at times for my eye health, but was not aware of the skin protection benefits until recently so can’t comment on them from personal experience.
Polypodium leucotomos extracts have been incorporated into an “oral sunscreen” by multiple organizations including Heliocare  and Life Extension . The Life Extension product Enhanced Fernblock with Sendara  looks particularly interesting as the company has combined the fern extract with other herbal components from ashwagandha and Indian gooseberry that are claimed to have additional skin protection benefits. I haven’t personally used this product yet, but the research behind it looks compelling. The product is on sale until May 24, 2010, at $15.60 per bottle which is 60% off the regular price and this appears to be a better price than other vendors selling similar products.
I plan to write more about sun damage to the body, skin cancer that develops from it, and nutrients that can help block skin cancer, DNA, and oxidative and free radical damage in the skin in additional articles. Since oral sunscreen products are relatively new and still comparatively expensive, I’m interested in comments from any readers who have personal experience with oral sunscreen products, particularly their effectiveness.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The products mentioned on this post are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.