Fall’ing for Sunscreen

Sep 29, 2019

By Karen Wilkinson, RN, NHA, CLNC  – CareerSmart® Learning Contributor


This past spring, sunscreen became a hot topic of conversation coinciding with an FDA released report in May which proposed a rule to update regulatory requirements for sunscreen sold in the United States.  Believe it or not, sunscreen ingredients have been regulated since the 1970s, but with the increase in use and advancing knowledge behind drug absorption, the need for more understanding is necessary.  In addition to the evolving science of absorption, sunscreens themselves have improved in formulation and efficacy (Woodcock & Michele, 2019).  Instead of a single active ingredient, today’s sunscreen contains combinations of active ingredients in higher concentrations (Woodcock & Michele, 2019).  Furthermore, studies such as maximal usage trials are being used to assess the absorption and subsequent safety of sunscreen ingredients.  You might be thinking, “Why is this really important—it’s fall!” Well, fall continues to bring a significant amount of sunlight, and with many of us participating in fall sports, UVA and UVB exposure remains high enough to need of that extra layer of protection.

Sun damage occurs in just 15 minutes of sun exposure, with the highest risk between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. (CDC, 2014).  To combat this, the minimum recommended SPF is 30, which blocks approximately 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists (2018).  On the other hand, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration   is satisfied with SPF 15.  Whichever recommended number of SPF you choose, just be sure to apply generously prior to going outside, because it takes 15 minutes for your skin to absorb the product and protect you.  Once outside, reapply every two hours, especially after sweating or participating in water activities (AAD, 2018).  While you may find water resistant or very water resistant sunscreens, you will not find waterproof or sweatproof sunscreens.  The FDA does not allow manufacturers to use these terms, as they can be misleading.  So, whether SPF 15 or 30, water resistant, or very water resistant…apply every two hours! 

So, what type of sunscreen should you use?  There is often a fair amount of confusion around this.  A “physical” sunscreen is like a shield that uses ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, while “chemical” sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays with ingredients such as avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate, and others (AAD, 2018).  Ingredients under scrutiny, Para-aminobenzoic Acid (PABA) and trolamine salicylate, are not found in sunscreen legally sold in the United States, but the final regulatory report will be released by the FDA in November 2019, explaining full research and safety recommendations.  Of note, the FDA does say that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, commonly found in sunscreens sold in the United States, are generally recognized as safe and effective.  

Whether you choose to spray it on or rub it in, ensure even coverage of sunscreen and avoid inhalation, especially for small children.  Spray sunscreens often deliver a lighter coverage, so it is important to spray enough of the product for good protection.  When spraying sunscreen on children, do so in a well-ventilated area, and ask the child to hold their breath while you spray.  Avoid spraying directly onto faces; instead, spray the sunscreen onto hands and rub it in the skin.  Research has shown that spray sunscreens can irritate asthma and cause coughing and wheezing if inhaled.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends being aware of the wind direction to avoid inhalation.

This is a lot of necessary information, but here is the most meaningful point: even though the FDA is conducting more “tests” on sunscreen, they continue to stand by the necessity and public health benefit of sunscreen use to protect our skin from sunburn and skin cancer.  So, on your way to outdoor activities this fall, don’t forget to throw that extra bottle (or can) of sunscreen in your bag. Your skin will thank you!    

You may also be interested in:


(1)Centers for Disease Control. (2014). NIOSH fast facts: Protecting yourself from sun exposure. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2010-116/

(2)American Academy of Dermatology. (2018). Sunscreen FAQs. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs

(3)Woodcock, J. & Michele, T.M. (2019). Shedding new light on sunscreen absorption. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/news-events/fda-voices-perspectives-fda-leadership-and-experts/shedding-new-light-sunscreen-absorption

September 29, 2019

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