Know Your Numbers: Sunscreen & Skin Cancer


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It’s no surprise that sunscreen helps protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. However, there are many statistics around sunscreen choices, the risks of not using it, and the importance of reapplying. Paying attention and acting on these numbers could affect your wealth and health in a big way.


To use sunscreen or not to use sunscreen


This should never be a question. Here’s a quick breakdown of the numbers, as reported by the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF):


  • The sun’s harmful UV rays are responsible for 90% of skin cancers.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will have skin cancer in their life.
  • During the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined.
  • Skin cancer treatment costs the U.S. $8.1 billion annually. 

And … drumroll please … Wearing sunscreen is one of the key strategies that help protect skin from excessive sun exposure. With the risks associated with skin cancer and the high cost of treatment, buying an inexpensive $10 to $15 bottle of sunscreen three or four times a year could offer huge benefits, compared to the cost of testing and treating suspicious spots on your skin. Estimated annual per-patient costs range from $506 among prevalent cases of melanoma to $23,410 among newly diagnosed cases, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. The cost of a skin biopsy alone can be between $150 and $1,000.


Busting the SPF myth


As a reminder, the SPF number on a bottle of sunscreen stands for Sun Protection Factors. SPF tells a person how much longer they can stay in the sun without damaging effects from the sun’s UVB and UVA rays. For example, SPF 15 will protect your skin 15 times longer than if you wore no sunscreen. SPF 30 will protect your skin 30 times longer, and so on. “If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer — about five hours,” states the SCF.  


The SCF also says that it’s important to reapply every two hours, because one application of sunscreen cannot protect for longer than that, no matter what the SPF.


A common misbelief is that all sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher offers the same amount of protection. Actually, different SPF numbers filter out different numbers of harmful rays. The SCF reports, “SPF 15 filters out approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent an.... It may seem like negligible differences, but if you are light-sensitive, or have a history of skin cancer, those extra percentages will make a difference.”


Looking at it from a cost-perspective, isn’t it worth the extra couple of dollars to opt for a bottle of sunscreen with SPF 50 to block out 98% of harmful radiation?


More sunscreen, less (photo)aging


Not only does wearing sunscreen protect you from skin cancer, but it also slows down photoaging. As a reminder, photoaging is premature aging of the skin, including color discoloration, wrinkles, sunspots, and dryness, caused by the sun’s UV rays and tanning beds. The sun’s radiation accounts for 90% of photoaging, according to Sauer’s Manual of Skin Diseases.


Some photoaging happens naturally. However, daily application of sunscreen will not only help prevent photoaging but can reverse some of the sig.... The SCF states, “People who use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher daily show 24 percent less skin aging than those who do not use sunscreen daily.”


Cloudy with a chance of skin cancer


Don’t think for a second that when the weather is cloudy you’re safe from the sun, especially during summer. According to the skin cancer foundation, the sun sits higher in the summer, therefore radiation has a more direct path of traveling to your skin, and as much as 80% of UV rays can pass through clouds.


It’s also worth noting that your ethnicity, and whether you are male or female, can affect your chances of developing skin cancer. For more information, head over to Transamerica’s Four Reasons to Wear Sunscreen [link to article 24545_KPSOTS0617once it goes live].


Not all sunscreens are created equal


Nowadays, more is known about topical ingredients in skincare products than ever before. The EWG Sunscreen Guide encourages people to choose a sunscreen that doesn’t have oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate (a form of Vitamin A) or come in spray or powder form that can pose inhalation risks.


Says the EWG on oxybenzone, “It penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. It can trigger allergic skin reactions. Some research studies, while not conclusive, have linked higher concentrations of oxybenzone to health disorders, including endometriosis in older women and lower birth weights in newborn girls.”


According to the EWG, retinyl palmitate “may speed development of skin tumors and lesions,” which seems counterproductive.


So which sunscreens are good, and which are bad? The organization encourages people to stay away from these dangerous sunscreens, and opt for these sunscreens instead (choose from “Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens”, “Best Scoring Kid Sunscreens”, “Best Moisturizers with SPF”, etc.). In their opinion, you’re already making the effort to protect skin by choosing to purchase and wear sunscreen, you might as well use sunscreens that don't compromise your health. 


What are your thoughts regarding the protection of sunscreen? Is there a brand of sunscreen you trust more than another?


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