THE PREVENTIVE POWER OF SUNSCREEN: Safeguarding Against Skin Cancer

An older woman putting sunscreen on her face

We spend a lot of time outside in the Austin area. There are excellent outdoor activities, fairs, outdoor dining options, and concerts. All this time outside can wreak havoc on our skin, and one of the most serious considerations is skin cancer, the most prevalent type of cancer in the United States. Skin cancer is primarily caused by the harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. By applying sunscreen, we create a protective barrier that acts as a shield against these harmful rays by either absorbing or reflecting the UV radiation. We asked Arpy Kothari, a Certified Physician Assistant at Vitalogy Skincare, to answer some questions about how sunscreen protects our skin.

Q: What is UV radiation, and how does it cause skin cancer?

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation from the sun and artificial sources such as tanning beds and welding torches. This energy has shorter wavelengths and higher energy than visible light. The two most important types of UV radiation are UVA and UVB rays.

UVA is present at the same strength throughout the year, reaches deeper layers of skin, and contributes to long-term skin damage such as wrinkles, pigmentation issues, and some skin cancers.

UVB is present at different intensities throughout the year (peaking between spring and fall), is responsible for causing damage to the most superficial layers of the skin, and contributes the most to sunburns and most skin cancers.

It’s important to remember that UV levels depend on different factors – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) talks about factors that increase the intensity of UV radiation, such as altitude, closeness to the equator, time of day and year, as well as reflection (things like snow, sand, and pavement reflect UV radiation, causing UV intensity to be higher.) The effects of UV radiation on the skin are cumulative and can damage the DNA in cells, which in turn may lead to skin cancer.

Q: How does sunscreen work to decrease the risk of skin cancer, and what criteria should we consider when selecting a sunscreen?

Sunscreens block ultraviolet radiation from causing damage to the skin. There are two types of sunscreens which have been tested as safe and effective:

  1. Organic or chemical sunscreens use organic molecules to absorb UV radiation and transform it into heat. There are currently ten organic sunscreen ingredients.
  2. Inorganic or physical sunscreens use minerals to reflect UV radiation, thus preventing it from being absorbed by the skin. Two ingredients are used in inorganic sunscreen: zinc oxide and titanium oxide.

Nowadays, you may find a combination of both in some sunscreens. When selecting a sunscreen, make sure it has an SPF of 30 or higher, that it is water resistant if you are swimming or exercising, and lastly, that it has broad-spectrum protection, which has been FDA-tested and proven to protect against UVA and UVB rays. Other than that, pick a sunscreen that you like and will use daily!

Q:  Talking about SPF on sunscreen has become commonplace, but what does it mean?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It uses a ratio to calculate the protection against redness caused by UVB and specific UVA rays on sunscreen-covered skin versus unprotected skin. So, for example, a sunscreen with an SPF 30, when used properly, would take 30 times longer to burn your skin than if you had not used any sunscreen.

Q: Are there other reasons sunscreen is good for the skin?

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40% and lower your risk of getting melanoma (the most dangerous skin cancer) by 50%. Sunscreen also helps protect against wrinkles, sunspots, other hyperpigmentation issues, and flare-ups in people who suffer from eczema or rosacea.

Q: What other factors increase your risk of getting skin cancer?

  • skin type, specifically lighter toned skin, red or blonde hair
  • having several moles
  • genetics, such as a family history of melanoma skin cancer
  • having previously been diagnosed with skin cancer
  • using tanning beds

Q:  There are days when we apply sunscreen while running out the door. How can sunscreen be applied effectively, and which areas are commonly overlooked for protection?

Sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before exposure to the sun and reapplied every couple of hours. Most people do not use enough sunscreen to cover their skin, do not be afraid of it. Most experts recommend using the equivalent of a shot glass of sunscreen on the exposed areas of your body and face.

You should reapply more often if swimming or sweating because sunscreen is not waterproof. Some formulas are water-resistant, labeled as such, but you should still reapply often when active. Do not forget to apply sunscreen to the ears, neck, and nose, as these areas are often overlooked.

Q: Are there other things we can do to protect ourselves from UV radiation?

Yes, you can wear a wide-brimmed sun hat that protects the head and ears, wear UV-protecting clothing, avoid the sun during peak hours, and seek shade whenever possible. 

For questions about sunscreens or to schedule your annual full skin exam with Certified Physician Assistant Arpy, visit VitalogySkincare.com or call 512.930.3909.

About the Author:

Arpy Kothari is a Certified Physician Assistant with Vitalogy Skincare who sees patients at their Cedar Park location. She holds certifications from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants and is licensed by the Texas State Board. Her expertise in diagnosing and treating various skin conditions includes acne, warts, seborrheic dermatitis, cysts, and skin cancer. Arpy values the importance of building strong, long-term relationships with her patients. Her dedication to delivering compassionate and high-quality care sets her apart as a healthcare provider who is deeply invested in the well-being of her patients.

Since 2007, Vitalogy Skincare has been Central Texas’ choice for dermatological care with best-in-class Board-Certified Dermatologists, Fellowship-Trained Mohs Surgeons, and Licensed Aestheticians. Visit VitalogySkincare.com to learn more about our medical, cosmetic, and surgical services. Schedule appointments online or call 512.930.3909

Originally published “THE PREVENTIVE POWER OF SUNSCREEN: SAFEGUARDING AGAINST SKIN CANCER” 
(July 25, 2023) Editble Austin