UV protection and sunscreens: What to tell patients

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UV radiation produces darkening of the skin, or tanning. UV exposure results in both immediate and persistent pigment darkening. Immediate pigment darkening, which is visible and transient, occurs within seconds of UV exposure as a result of the formation of reactive oxygen species and photooxidation of preexisting melanin, and it resolves in a couple of hours. Persistent pigment darkening results from photooxidation and redistribution of preexisting melanin, occurring 2 to 24 hours after sun exposure. Neither type of pigment darkening protects the skin, since no new melanin is produced.16,17

UV-B rays can induce skin erythema, edema, and sunburn, followed by skin desquamation and tanning. Its effects can be seen immediately, but typically the erythema reaches its peak 24 hours later.1

“Delayed tanning” is an adaptive response seen about 3 days after sun exposure and is caused by increased melanocyte activity and new melanin formation in response to UV-B; this effect is considered mildly photoprotective, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 3. In other words, there is a tiny bit of truth to the common belief that a tan that develops a few days after sun exposure (delayed tanning) can provide a small increase in protection from sunburn. However, the real health concern is not only sunburn, but increased cancer risk and photoaging from UV exposure.


Every year, nearly 28 million Americans use a sunbed or a sunlamp, and 2.3 million of them are teenagers.18,19 Every day in the United States more than 1 million people use an indoor tanning device.20 Nearly 70% of those who use tanning devices are white women ages 16 to 29.21

Tanning is big business. In 2010, there were 20,000 tanning salons in the United States, and the number of health clubs and spas with tanning beds was between 15,000 and 20,000. In 2010, the tanning industry generated an estimated $4.7 billion in revenue.22

In their search for the perfect tan, people receive very large doses of UV light, and most tanning lamps emit 95% to 99% of their light as UV-A. In fact, the typical sunlamp user can receive an annual dose of UV-A that is 0.3 to 1.2 times the average annual cumulative dose received from sun exposure (7,700 kJ/m2).11 A typical customer of a tanning salon in the course of 20 sessions is exposed to up to 1.2 times the average normal annual exposure from sunlight. Also, for a frequent tanner, the exposure can increase to 4.7 times the average normal annual exposure and up to 12 times the exposure if using high-pressure sunlamps.11 Indoor tanners not only receive large doses of a known carcinogen, but the body’s pigmentary responses to a sunlamp’s UV-A (immediate and persistent pigment darkening) do not protect it from sunburn, cancer-inducing DNA damage, immunosuppression, or photoaging.

Additionally, even though tanning bed lamps only emit 1% to 5% of their light in the UV-B spectrum, one can still receive a very large dose of UV-B radiation with enough exposure.

The American Academy of Dermatology opposes indoor tanning and supports a ban on the nonmedical production and sale of indoor tanning devices. The World Health Organization classifies tanning lamps as carcinogenic and advises minors to avoid indoor tanning.23


Sunscreen products must contain an active sunscreen ingredient that absorbs radiation in the range of 290 to 400 nm. In “physical” sunscreens, the ingredient is an inorganic compound with particles that physically block out UV radiation; in “chemical” sunscreens, the ingredient is an organic compound that absorbs UV radiation.

Most organic UV filters absorb UV-B radiation, and a few act in the UV-A2 range (320–340 nm). Only one FDA-approved organic sunscreen, avobenzone, protects against UV-A1 (340–400 nm).

Inorganic compounds function by physically reflecting and scattering UV radiation from a film of inert metal particles, ie, in a manner similar to protective clothing.24 Two FDA-approved inorganic sunscreens—titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—provide UV-A and UV-B protection. Zinc oxide and the non-micronized form of titanium dioxide provide UV-A1 and UV-A2 protection.

Inorganic sunscreens have a thick consistency and tend to clump. Advances in nanoparticle technology have improved their consistency,25 but micronized titanium dioxide does not provide UV-A1 protection.

The FDA regulates the active ingredients in sunscreen products, determines the methods of testing them, and dictates labelling requirements.


Sunscreens are categorized according to their SPF,26 UV-A protection,27,28 substantivity, and stability.29

Understanding the ‘sun protection factor’

SPF is a laboratory measure of sunscreen efficacy and is defined as the amount of UV radiation required to produce a sunburn on protected skin relative to that of unprotected skin. Since SPF assessment is based on erythema, it is mainly a measure of UV-B exposure, not UV-A exposure.

Contrary to popular belief, the SPF of a product is not related to the duration of UV exposure.30 Also, the relationship between SPF and UV-B protection is not linear: a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 can filter 94% of UV-B radiation, whereas an SPF of 30 provides greater than 97% protection at an equal UV-B dosage. UV radiation dosage depends on both the duration of exposure and the intensity of the UV radiation. Thus, a sunscreen with twice the SPF does not necessarily mean one can stay out in the sun twice as long before developing a sunburn.

The FDA has established acceptable sunscreen filters and their maximal concentrations for over-the-counter sunscreens.31 The FDA approval of ecamsule (Mexoryl SX) in 2006 brought the total number of sunscreens to 17 (Table 1).1

Ability to block UV-A radiation

As UV-A causes significant immunosuppression and is the major type of UV radiation reaching Earth, a systematic and repeatable method of measuring a sunscreen’s ability to block UV-A light is necessary.

For each sunscreen, laboratory testing generates a curve of the absorbance within the UV spectrum. The area under this curve is calculated, and a “critical wavelength” is defined as the wavelength where the area under the absorbance curve up to that value is 90% of the total area under the curve. A sunscreen with “broad-spectrum” UV-A protection is one for which the critical wavelength is greater than or equal to 370 nm. The critical wavelength measures the breadth of UV-A absorbance by a sunscreen and must be used in combination with the SPF value to provide a complete assessment of UV protection.27,28,32,33


Substantivity is a sunscreen’s ability to remain effective under adverse conditions such as exposure to water and sweat. A water-resistant product maintains the indicated protection after 40 minutes of water immersion, whereas a very-water-resistant (formerly called “waterproof”) product maintains the indicated protection after 80 minutes of water immersion.27,28,32,33


The stability of the sunscreen is important for long-lasting protection with continuous exposure to UV light, in particular to prevent photodegradation. The FDA has established maximum levels of each filter allowed in the sunscreen. Several filters can be combined to achieve a high SPF level, to provide broadspectrum UV-A and UV-B protection, and to prevent photodegradation. For example, octocrylene prevents the degradation of the photosensitive compound avobenzone, whereas ecamsule has been combined with avobenzone and octocrylene to provide broad-spectrum UV-A and UV-B protection. Ecamsule is currently patent-protected by L’Oreal and is found only in products produced by it and its subsidiaries.

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