Sunscreens are products applied to the skin to protect against the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Everyone needs a little sunshine. About 15 minutes of exposure a day helps the body make Vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones and teeth. But longer exposure may cause many problems, from wrinkles to skin cancer. One particularly deadly form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, has been on the rise in recent decades, as tanning has become more popular. Over the same period, scientists have warned that the thin layer of ozone that protects life on Earth from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation is being depleted. This allows more UV radiation to get through, adding to the risk of overexposure.
Sunscreens help protect against the sun's damaging effects. But just how much protection they provide is a matter of debate. The sun gives off two kinds of ultraviolet radiation, called UV-A and UV-B. For many years, experts thought that only UV-B was harmful. However, recent research suggests that UV-A may be just as dangerous as UV-B, although its effects may take longer to show up. In particular, UV-A may have a role in causing melanoma. Most sunscreen products contain ingredients that provide adequate protection only against UV-B rays. Even those labeled as "broad spectrum" sunscreens may offer only partial protection against UV-A radiation. Those containing the ingredient avobenzone give the most protection against UV-A rays.
Some medical experts are concerned that sunscreens give people a false sense of security, allowing them to stay in the sun longer than they should. Although sunscreens protect the skin from burning, they may not protect against other kinds of damage. A number of studies suggest that people who use sunscreens may actually increase their risk of melanoma because they spend too much time in the sun. This does not mean that people should stop using sunscreens. It means that they should not rely on sunscreens alone for protection. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreens should be one part of sun protection, along with wide-brimmed hats and tightly-woven clothing that covers the arms and legs.
Nancy Ross-Flanigan, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,