Skin cancer affects people of all cultures and age groups. As one of the most common forms of cancer, estimates predict 1 in 5 Americans will develop some variation of skin cancer. Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the primary cause of skin cancer. This makes sun protection a major part of prevention.
You already know that sunscreen plays a vital role in shielding your skin from harmful UV radiation, but do you know how it affects your skin? In this article, we’ll explain how sunscreen works and explore its role in preventing various types of skin cancer.
How Ultraviolet Radiation Affects the Skin
There are three types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. UVA and UVB rays are the ones that impact our skin.
- UVA rays, which account for 95% of UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, can cause skin aging and DNA damage.
- Although less abundant, UVB rays can be more potent and are responsible for sunburns and direct DNA damage.
Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to the development of skin cancer.
How Sunscreen Works to Protect the Skin
When it comes to safeguarding against UV radiation, sunscreen is a major line of defense. Unfortunately, many people don’t understand how it works and underestimate just how effective it is when applied correctly.
Sunscreen delivers protection through various mechanisms, depending on the type of sunscreen used. Sunscreens are broken down into two types: chemical and physical. Each type offers distinct advantages and works in different ways to shield the skin from UV radiation.
Also known as organic sunscreens, chemical sunscreens contain a combination of organic compounds that absorb UV rays. Compounds such as avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone work by absorbing the energy from UV radiation and converting it into heat, which is then released from the skin.
Chemical sunscreens deliver several benefits. For example, they tend to be more lightweight, less greasy, and easier to apply than physical sunscreens. They are better at blending into the skin without leaving a white cast.
However, some people may experience skin irritation or allergies to certain chemical sunscreen ingredients. There have also been some concerns raised about the environmental impact of specific compounds, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, on coral reefs.
Physical sunscreens use active mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to protect the skin from UV radiation. These ingredients form a physical barrier on the skin’s surface, reflecting and scattering UV rays away from the skin.
A strong advantage of physical sunscreens is that they tend to be less irritating, which makes them better suited for sensitive skin compared to chemical sunscreens. In addition, physical sunscreens are effective the moment they are applied. (Chemical sunscreens, in contrast, may take up to 15 minutes to take effect.)
There are a few drawbacks to physical sunscreens as well. Physical sunscreens tend to leave a white cast on the skin, making them more challenging to blend with makeup. They may also feel heavier or greasier compared to their chemical counterparts.
Both chemical and physical sunscreens can provide effective sun protection when used correctly. It’s essential to choose a product that suits your skin type, preferences, and lifestyle. This will make it more likely that you’ll use it consistently and keep your skin protected.
How Broad-Spectrum Sunscreens Reduce the Risk of Skin Cancer
Sun protection factor (SPF) measures the level of UVB protection in sunscreen. Experts recommend using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97% of UVB rays. However, while SPF is an important measurement, SPF ratings do not account for UVA protection.
That’s where a broad-spectrum sunscreen comes to the rescue. Broad-spectrum sunscreens shield your skin from both UVA and UVB rays, ensuring that your skin is defended against the full range of harmful UV radiation.
Because of its role as a shield, sunscreen plays a vital role in reducing the risk of various skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Each type of skin cancer is linked to UV exposure, making sunscreen a critical preventative measure.
- Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is one of the most common forms of skin cancer. It is strongly linked to cumulative UV exposure over time, particularly from UVA radiation.
- Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) arises from the uncontrolled growth of squamous cells in the skin. Constant exposure to UV radiation over time, especially UVB rays, is a major risk factor for developing SCC.
- Melanoma is a slightly less common—but very aggressive—form of skin cancer that originates from melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing melanin. Intense, intermittent exposure to UV radiation, especially UVB rays, is a major risk factor for developing melanoma. Studies have found that melanoma may be preventable by regular sunscreen use in adults.
Sunscreen is a major player in preventing different types of skin cancer. Incorporating an appropriate SPF sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection can drastically reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.
How to Choose the Right Sunscreen
To choose the right sunscreen for your needs, consider factors such as your skin type, how much sun you take in each day, and the activities you plan to engage in.
When selecting a sunscreen, ensure it meets the following criteria:
- Broad-spectrum protection: Look for sunscreens that offer protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Appropriate SPF: Opt for a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Use a higher SPF if you have fair skin or expect to spend lots of time in the sun.
- Water resistance: If you plan to swim or engage in activities that cause sweating, choose a water-resistant sunscreen.
Other factors to consider include the sunscreen’s texture, its potential for skin irritation, and its environmental impact. It’s important to choose a product that you will use consistently.
How to Apply Sunscreen
Applying sunscreen correctly is crucial for optimal sun protection. Follow these guidelines to ensure you’re using sunscreen effectively:
- Apply a generous amount: It doesn’t help you to go light with sunscreen. Make sure all exposed skin areas are covered, including your ears, the tops of your feet, and the back of your neck.
- Apply ahead of time: For chemical sunscreens, application 15 minutes before sun exposure is best. Physical sunscreens offer immediate protection, but it’s a good idea to wait a few minutes just to be sure.
- Reapply regularly: If you’re outdoors getting wet or sweaty, reapply your sunscreen at least every two hours. Even water-resistant sunscreens need to be reapplied.
Speak to a Dermatologist to Find the Right Sunscreen for You
Sunscreen is a powerful tool for protecting your skin from harmful UV radiation. By understanding how sunscreen works, choosing the right product, and using it correctly, you can significantly lower your skin cancer risk.
If you need help choosing the right sunscreen for your needs, contact Franks Dermatology in Little Rock by calling (501) 246-1042. We will assess your skin type, determine your risk factors, and help you find the best sunscreen that fits your lifestyle so you can maintain healthy skin.