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Skin Care and Diseases

Sun Screen & Cancer Prevention

07/06/2011

Question:

My son tells me that he has researched it and insists that using sun screen with a 15 protection (hopefully applying it more often) actually reduces the chance of skin cancer over using 30 or higher protection. Is this the case?

Answer:

Your son may have been reading about the new FDA guidelines for sunscreens. On June 14, 2011, the FDA presented new regulations for sunscreen. One of these was that only sunscreens providing broad-spectrum coverage (meaning they work against both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B light) with an SPF of 15 or higher can claim that they reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when used with other sun protection measures. Sunscreens with an SPF less than 15 can only claim to prevent sunburn but not skin cancer.

The recommendations from the FDA are to use one ounce of sunscreen and to reapply every two hours or after swimming and/or sweating. These changes will most likely go into effect next summer (2012). Therefore, from the FDA's perspective, any broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 can provide protection from skin cancer.

From our perspective as dermatologists, we welcome changes to sunscreen labeling, since they can be very confusing to patients and consumers. We still caution, however, that using sunscreen with no other form of sun protection (shade, hats, sun protective clothing) is not ideal since some patients may still get a sunburn or suntan since they will not apply the sunscreen correctly or adequately. Sunburns and suntans are signs of skin damage from ultraviolet radiation which can increase one's risk for skin cancer. Therefore, in addition to sunscreen that provides broad spectrum coverage, we also recommend avoiding intentional sun exposure and wearing hats and long sleeves/pants whenever possible.

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Response by:

Meg R Gerstenblith, MD Meg R Gerstenblith, MD
Assistant Professor of Dermatology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University