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skin cancer protection

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Different types of burns

Alternative Names 
sunscreen agents, sunscreen lotion

Sunscreens and sunblocks are chemical or physical products used to protect the skin from sun damage which can lead to skin cancer, such as melanoma.
  • Sunscreen products provide various degrees of protection against the sun's ultraviolet rays.
  • Sunblock products prevent all ultraviolight from entering the skin. They often contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and are used for high-risk areas such as the nose, lips, and shoulders.
Chemical sunscreens and sunblocks protect the skin by absorbing visible and invisible, or ultraviolet, sunrays. Examples include:
  • lotions
  • gels
  • creams
  • lip balms
  • sprays
Physical sunscreens and sunblocks protect the skin by reflecting, scattering, absorbing, and blocking sunrays. Examples of physical sunscreens include:
  • clothing, such as shirts and pants and newer fabrics designed to block the sun
  • hats
  • sunglasses
  • zinc cream
What is the information for this topic? 
Sunscreens and sunblocks have been developed to decrease the harmful effects of the sun on the skin. Studies have shown that too much sun exposure can cause: To protect the skin from the sun, a person should:
  • plan outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon. Ultraviolet rays are most intense from 10 am to 2 pm
  • wear a hat, long-sleeve shirt, long pants, and sunglasses when outside for long periods of time
  • apply sunscreen or sunblock to exposed skin
There are numerous sunscreen products on the market. Most contain more than one type of sunscreen ingredient. Ideally, a sunscreen should have ingredients that protect against both ultraviolet A and B sunrays, known as a broadspectrum sunscreen. Coconut oil, cocoa butter, and baby oil are of no use as sunscreens.

Sunscreens are rated by their sun protection factor, or SPF. The SPF found on the label indicates the amount of protection provided from the sun. SPF numbers indicate the length of time one can spend in the sun without risk of burning. For example, a person who uses an SPF 15 sunscreen and normally sunburns in 20 minutes of midday sun exposure, may tolerate 15 times 20 minutes, or 300 minutes, without burning.

The higher the SPF, the greater the protection from the sun. A SPF of at least 30 is usually recommended.

Before choosing a sunscreen, a person should consult a doctor if he or she:
  • has a history of allergies to any skin products or certain food products, such as saccharin or artificial sweeteners, or cinnamon spices
  • is pregnant or breastfeeding
  • is taking prescription medication, such as antibiotics. Certain antibiotics, birth control pills, diuretics, antihistamines, and antidepressants are among the commonly used medications that can increase sensitivity to the sun's rays. Medications that are directly applied to the skin can also cause sun sensitivity.
  • has any medical problems, particularly skin diseases, that may affect the use of sunscreen
Other issues to consider when choosing a sunscreen include:
  • the type of activity a person will be doing. A waterproof sunscreen works best for water play or sports that cause sweating.
  • location. Mountains and other areas of high elevation or activities involving reflective surfaces, such as water, sand, snow, or concrete, may require extra precautions. These precautions may include long sleeved shirts, legionnaire style hats, sunglasses or goggles.
  • age, follow the manufacturers guidelines
  • the part of the body to be screened. A physical sunscreen like a hat should be worn to protect the nose and ears. A lip balm sunscreen is often suggested for the lips.
  • the condition of a person's skin. A cream or lotion sunscreen is recommended for a person with dry skin. If a person has oily skin, a gel-based or alcohol-based sunscreen may be better.
When using sunscreens:
  • apply 30 minutes before sun exposure. Sunscreen products containing aminobenzoic acid, lisadimate, padimate O, or roxadimate should be applied 1 to 2 hours before sun exposure. Lip sunscreens should be applied 45 to 60 minutes before sun exposure.
  • follow directions on product labels carefully
  • reapply every 1 to 2 hours or as directed by the manufacturer
  • reapply after swimming or sweating
  • reapply to the lips after eating, drinking, or swimming
  • keep away from the eyes and mouth. Sunscreen should only be used externally.
Although sunscreen is important in protecting the skin, a person should also be aware of potential side effects. These may include:
  • rash
  • acne, burning, itching, or stinging of the skin
  • redness or swelling of the skin
A doctor should be consulted about these and any other side effects.

Author: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 17/02/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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