UV protection and sunscreens: What to tell patients

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Sunscreen use generally falls into three categories: daily use, short-term use (eg, for an activity involving increased sun exposure, such as outdoor exercise or work), and use for preventing sunburn during tan acquisition, ie, to increase the time of UV radiation exposure.

Most published studies report on the effects of daily sunscreen protection or on cutaneous immune responses to sunscreen use. However, the use of sunscreens to enhance tan acquisition and to increase sun exposure duration is an abuse of the product and can actually increase the risk of skin cancer. A common misperception is that sunscreens decrease the risk of burning and allow people to increase their exposure to UV radiation. This results in increased exposure to UV-A and thus increases the risk of skin cancers and facilitates photoaging.34

In 2003, Baron et al35 published a randomized trial evaluating the protective effects of UV-B sunscreens (SPF 15) and UV-A/UV-B sunscreens (SPF 15) against UV radiation, using contact hypersensitivity as a model for immunosuppression. The study involved 211 volunteers ages 18 to 59. Measuring skinfold thickness vs total UV dose to calculate an immune protection factor, they reported that the UV-A/UV-B sunscreens had a greater average immune protection factor than the UV-B sunscreen. They concluded that though both types of sunscreen can protect against immunosuppression, the addition of a UV-A filter provides greater protection against immunosuppression.35

A French study36 in 104 volunteers examined the immunoprotective effects of sunscreens with equal SPF but differing levels of UV-A protection after UV exposure, and used delayed-type hypersensitivity as a model for cutaneous immune response. Broader UV-A protection yielded smaller reductions in delayed-type hypersensitivity after UV exposure, leading to the conclusion that UV-A contributes greatly to cutaneous immunosuppression and that UV-A filters can mitigate some of these effects.36

Sunscreens and photoaging

Only a few clinical studies have examined the effects of sunscreen use on photoaging.

In 1995, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involving 53 adults with previously diagnosed with actinic keratosis or skin cancer, or both, showed that those who applied a UV-A/UV-B sunscreen over a 24-month period had less solar elastosis on biopsy compared with controls.37

In 2008, a French study of 12 volunteers showed that broad-spectrum UV protection prevented histologic changes attributed to 6 weeks of chronic UV exposure. The control group exhibited structural and molecular evidence of UV damage (eg, epidermal thickening, decreased procollagen expression, higher lysozyme-to-elastin ratio), whereas chronic use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen either minimized or abrogated these findings.12

Evidence also suggests that broad-spectrum sunscreens can prevent damage from suberythemal doses of UV. A study published in 200738 investigated whether broad-spectrum sunscreen use affects the development of genetic and cellular markers of UV damage after daily suberythemal UV exposure. It reported that unprotected individuals exhibited more thymine dimers, higher p53 expression, and loss of Langerhans cells compared with protected individuals.38

Similarly, a study published in 201012 assessed cellular and molecular markers of photodamage after 19 daily suberythemal UV exposures with or without a broad-spectrum, low-SPF (SPF 8) sunscreen and found that consistent sunscreen use resulted in fewer p53-positive cells, a lower lysozyme-to-elastin ratio, a decreased number and size of melanocytes, and an increased number of Langerhans cells.

Thus, evidence supports the idea that consistent use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen can protect against photodamage, even at doses that do not cause erythema.12

Sunscreens and squamous cell carcinoma

Several large trials provide appreciable evidence that sunscreen is effective in preventing squamous cell carcinoma.

A randomized, controlled, 7-month trial in Australia of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 17 noted a dose-dependent reduction in the development of new actinic keratosis.39 Another randomized, controlled trial from Australia showed a 40% reduction in the development of squamous cell carcinoma over a 4.5-year period in participants who applied a broad-spectrum SPF-16 sunscreen 3 to 4 days per week vs discretionary use.40 Follow-up data at 8 years showed that daily sunscreen users continued to have a 40% lower incidence rate of squamous cell carcinoma than controls.41

Sunscreens and basal cell carcinoma

Although sunscreens appear to be effective in preventing actinic keratosis and squamous cell carcinoma, the evidence that they also prevent basal cell carcinoma and melanoma has been inconclusive.

Sunscreens and melanoma

Using a high number of nevi as a surrogate measure of the risk of developing melanoma, a randomized controlled trial of a broad-spectrum SPF-30 sunscreen in Canadian children over a 3-year period showed a slight decrease in the number of new nevi compared with controls. However, this effect was seen only in children with freckles.42

In a large European study of white school-age children, sunscreen use was associated with an increased number of nevi compared with the use of clothing, which prevented new nevi.43

A large meta-analysis of 18 case-controlled studies failed to show a protective association of sunscreen use with melanoma.44 Postulated confounding factors in earlier studies included older sunscreen formulations with no UV-A protection, low SPF, and limited substantivity. In many cases, sunscreen users exposed themselves to higher doses of UV because of the perceived decreased risk of burning with sunscreen use. This is especially the case when sun exposure was intentional to acquire a tan.34 Individuals who burn easily or may have had a family history of melanoma tended to use more sunscreen, thus creating another confounder. Finally, extrapolation of results from data performed in different geographic latitudes may not be appropriate.

Recently, Green et al45 published a study using the same cohort from a previous study of sunscreens and nonmelanoma skin cancer to examine new primary melanomas as a secondary outcome. They reported that, during the 5-year trial period and during the 10-year follow-up, fewer participants in the intervention group developed primary melanoma compared with the control group (11 vs 21). They concluded that regular applications of a broad-spectrum SPF-16 sunscreen in white adults ages 25 to 75 can decrease the incidence of melanoma.45 The study had serious limitations: the authors admitted that the results were marginally statistically significant; intervention sites of sunscreen application were chosen for nonmelanoma skin cancer and excluded the trunk and lower extremities, where melanomas often occur; and the entire body was analyzed for melanomas, not just the intervention site.46 Thus, despite providing some of the first evidence supporting sunscreen’s ability to prevent melanoma, these results are controversial and are by no means conclusive.

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