United States Sunscreen: Not All Sunscreens are Created Equal

We all know that we should wear sunscreen if we are going to be outside for prolonged periods of time. In all reality, in order to effectively prevent photoaging (visible pigmentation from the sun associated with aging), wrinkles, and of course skin cancer it is essential to wear an adequate sun protection factor daily multiple times a day. When performing such a cumbersome yet essential task it would only make sense to use a product that provides adequate protection; if not, all of that work and money spent is not being used to its highest potential.

There are two types of ultraviolet radiation that reach and harm our skin: UVA and UVB. Usually, people differentiate these two by associating UVA with just aging and UVB with just burning. The UVA rays have a longer wavelength which means that they reach deep in the skin causing collagen degradation, melasma, and DNA damage. On the other hand, UVB has a very tight wavelength and is associated with tanning, burning, and DNA damage. The DNA damage is carried out by the photons penetrating the skin and reaching the DNA structures, essentially this creates distortions in the DNA replication process. This matters because if the cell is unable to catch and get rid of this error it can lead to skin cancer. If only there was a solution, but there is a solution: a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

This leads to the next issue. Which sunscreen is the best? The usual rule of thumb for recommending sunscreen in the United States is to find a sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30 and says broad spectrum. That is true, but the broad spectrum part is the gray area. The FDA regulates sunscreen as a drug because it dramatically reduces the chance of skin cancer. One of the regulations is companies’ labeling claims. The term broad-spectrum is referring to the product's ability to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. In the early days of sunscreen they only protected against UVB, and as time went on it had come to light that there needs to be protected from both wavelengths, hence the term broad spectrum. This regulation that the FDA has is on a pass-fail basis. This means for the consumer that there is no way to tell if there is adequate protection from UVA because the number after the SPF only refers to the protection rating from UVB rays. There have been studies of western sunscreens that show that there is a weak level of UVA protection. There are a few ways around this issue when it comes to a consumer trying to find a superior broad-spectrum SPF for both daily and intense outdoor use.

There is a difference between western sunscreens and others that are found in other continents like Europe and Asia; the biggest difference is the UVA ray protection rating systems. Asian sunscreens typically have a rating that looks like this: PA+, PA++, PA+++, or PA++++. The one plus sign signifies little UVA protection, the one with three and four provide adequate. Each plus sign signifies the extent of UVA protection the sunscreen contains. Someone might think this is not very precise, but this at least gives the consumer a gauge on what they are buying. In Europe, there are two common methods of depicting UVA coverage. The first is simply rating it on a star scale from one to five with five having the best protection. The second method resembles the United State’s pass-fail system which is having the acronym UVA with a circle around it. The reason why this is better than what is available in the United States is that the European market has higher standards for UVA protection.

Even though the FDA has lower standards for UVA protection, that does not mean that US citizens are out of options. It is not uncommon to find sunscreens in the United States that actually use these foreign rating systems. This instills confidence in anyone wanting strong broad-spectrum protection. Another option that is available