Here is an uncomfortable paradox: Sunscreen use is at an all-time high—and yet, so are new cases of skin cancer, especially among women aged fifteen to 39. If we’re all doing what our derms tell us—diligently using sunscreen every day, in the city, at the beach—what’s going wrong?
READING THE LABEL
Let’s start with the sunscreen bottles. With the best intentions, most of us have become programmed to look at the SPF rating and not much else. The SPF, or sun protection factor, relates solely to the degree of protection a formula provides against UVB rays. UVBs, known as the “burning rays,” vary seasonally (peaking around noon), damage the superficial layer of the dermis (which may contribute to skin cancer), and generally result in a sunburn. UVA rays—which account for 95 percent of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface, and which cut through clouds and glass year-round—are somewhat stealthier. These are the ones that have a longer wavelength, allowing them to penetrate deeper into the skin, destroying collagen and elastin, which contributes to photoaging (sagging skin, wrinkles), and triggering cell mutations, which may initiate skin cancer. As of now, there is no uniform or FDA-approved designation for rating UVA protection on sunscreen bottles. So just because a formula may offer excellent UVB protection, that does not mean it offers excellent, or even good, UVA protection.
This is not to say that the current sunscreens on the market don’t guard against UVA—you just have to know how to look for them. San Francisco dermatologist Katie Rodan, M.D., cofounder of Rodan + Fields skin care, dismisses “broad spectrum” as “a really weak term” and recommends consulting the bottle’s ingredient list instead. The gold standard—which should be the primary ingredient on any good sunscreen’s label, she says—is avobenzone, a chemical sunscreen (meaning it absorbs the UVA once it hits your skin), or zinc oxide, a physical, mineral-based block that reflects UVA light off your skin and back into the environment, like a mirror. While zinc can feel thick or look chalky (especially on darker complexions), it contains no chemicals, making it ideal for anyone who has sensitive skin, acne, rosacea, or is post-procedure. Rodan describes avobenzone as a “phenomenal UV blocking agent” but notes that unless it has been stabilized, “it degrades so easily in the presence of sunlight, it’s only effective for an hour, maybe two hours max.”
Lancôme, La Roche-Posay, Neutrogena, and Aveeno were among the first to successfully stabilize avobenzone: figuring out how to prevent it from breaking down as quickly, thus prolonging its effectiveness. This spring’s newest crop has raised the bar even higher, rethinking the way sunscreens conventionally protect the skin. For their Reverse Environmental Shield, Rodan and her partner, fellow derm Kathy Fields, M.D., looked to colorless carotenoids from sea algae. Rich in the antioxidant vitamin A, they not only slow down avobenzone’s degradation, they also protect cells from the free radicals that are inevitably generated when UV light hits the skin. “Your SPF doesn’t completely block against the effects of the sun—it’s only so good,” admits Rodan.
Avon’s Anew Solar Advance goes after free radicals, too. But instead of including a topical antioxidant, its formula is designed to stimulate natural enzymes within the cells to turn on their own antioxidant defense system. New York–based dermatologist and biochemist Cheryl Karcher, M.D., presented this innovative approach to DNA protection and repair at the American Academy of Dermatology meeting in New Orleans this past February.
The scientific sounding NIA-114—a skin-strengthening, DNA-repairing molecule with 57 worldwide patents—is the star ingredient in StriVectin-SH Age Protect. Coppertone’s frothy, featherweight Oil Free Foaming Sunscreen Lotion is the only sunscreen mousse on the U.S. market. Neutrogena’s Wet Skin spray does something else that is, frankly, amazing and sure to be the hit of the summer: Even when you’re soaking wet and reapplying sunscreen post-dip, its UV filters have been clinically shown to cling, perfectly, to your skin.
The FDA’s fabled sun-protection monograph—which has literally been a work in progress since it was started, in 1978—will come out in its most complete form in early 2012, it is rumored. Among other things, this exhaustive document (290 pages currently) will address criteria for measuring and labeling UVA protection, as well as claims regarding the terms waterproof (“impossible,” say most derms) versus water-resistant, and sunblock versus sunscreen. As one executive at the Skin Cancer Foundation puts it, nothing can truly, 100 percent “block” the sun, “except maybe denim.” Until then, look for products with the Skin Cancer Foundation’s new seal of approval, which provides verification that a product meets strict standards for UVA protection and photostability.
THE NUMBERS GAME
Remember those ancient times when SPF 15 was regarded as “total block”? With the FDA toying with putting a cap on claims above SPF 50+ (again, it will be in the monograph), it raises the question: What security do the tempting new SPF 100s actually provide? According to David Leffell, M.D., chief of Yale’s Dermatologic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology program, there is very little difference between the UVB protection provided by an SPF 30 and 60. While SPF 15 provides in the vicinity of 94 percent protection, “at SPF 30, you get about 96 percent blockage; at SPF 45, about 97 percent; at SPF 60, it’s 97.5 or 98 percent. The higher you go, the lesser the increment,” he says. “I call it SPF inflation.” The truth is, it doesn’t really matter what SPF you’re using if you’re using it wrong—not using enough, adequately covering your skin, or reapplying every few hours. “People see high SPF and they think they don’t have to reapply, so the numbers are not helpful in that regard,” he says.
Reapplication is a familiar, guilt-inducing conundrum for those of us who might, for example, diligently apply sunscreen under our makeup in the morning and then go to an alfresco lunch several hours later—by which time even the best sunscreen has pretty much ceased to be effective. Enter mineral powder foundations from companies like BareMinerals and Jane Iredale—the key ingredients of which are, conveniently, physical blockers zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “They’re great at allowing people to reapply their SPF without taking their makeup off,” says Rodan, whose line includes one such product, enhanced with anti-inflammatory peptides. “Lock ’n’ load” is how she describes her daily strategy: “Just put the powder on the retractable brush and throw it your purse, so you don’t have to carry the jar around.” Sounds like a plan.
Regards, Velvet Magazine