Why is it important to use sunscreen?

Skin damage from sunlight builds up with continued exposure, whether sunburn occurs or not. In addition to skin cancer and sunburn, other effects can include wrinkling, premature aging, and in time, an almost leathery appearance of the skin. Research also suggests that excessive exposure to UV radiation may interfere with the body's immune system.

Sunburn is associated with the shorter ultraviolet wavelengths, known as ultraviolet B (UVB). The longer wavelengths, known as ultraviolet A (UVA), however, can penetrate the skin and damage connective tissue at deeper levels, even if the skin's surface feels cool. It is important to limit exposure to both UVA and UVB.

Sunscreens play an important role in a total program to reduce the harmful effects of the sun, along with limiting sun exposure and wearing protective clothing. FDA regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Cosmetic products that are marketed with sun-protection claims are regulated as both drugs and cosmetics.

To help consumers select products that best suit their needs, sunscreens are labeled with SPF numbers. SPF stands for "Sun Protection Factor." The higher the SPF number, the more sunburn protection the product provides. Remember, sunscreen use alone will not prevent all of the possible harmful effects of the sun.

The effectiveness of a sunscreen is reduced if it is not applied in adequate amounts or it is washed off, rubbed off, sweated off, or otherwise removed. For maximum effectiveness, apply a sunscreen liberally and reapply it frequently.

FDA is concerned about the health hazards associated with suntanning products that do not contain sunscreen ingredients. Beginning May 22, 2000, such suntanning products must bear the following warning statement:

"Warning–This product does not contain a sunscreen and does not protect against sunburn. Repeated exposure of unprotected skin while tanning may increase the risk of skin aging, skin cancer, and other harmful effects to the skin even if you do not burn." (Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 740.19)

When at the beach or pool, cover exposed areas with tightly woven clothing and wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head and face. If you're a parent, protect your children's skin; research indicates that one or more severe, blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence can double the risk of skin cancer later in life.

Remember that the sun's rays are the strongest from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m, especially during the late spring and summer. Reflected glare from water and snow also can increase your exposure to UV radiation.