Not All Sunscreens Are Created Equal The SPF numbers on sunscreen bottles only refer to the level of protection against a type of radiation called UVB. But dermatologists say it's important to use a lotion that shields skin from UVA rays, too.

Not All Sunscreens Are Created Equal

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

With the longest days of the year come the most intense rays of the sun. Most people know it's important to protect the skin, yet not all sunscreens are equal.

NPR's Allison Aubrey talked to dermatologists about what seems to work best.

(Soundbite of whistle)

ALLISON AUBREY: An afternoon at the pool takes a lot of coordination for Helen Domenici. As the mom of two kids, ages two and four, she has to schlep all their gear and make sure they're lathered up in sunscreen.

Ms. HELEN DOMENICI (Parent): The most important thing is to try do it before you come down to the pool or the beach. I think it's to do it before you get to the destination in the sun.

AUBREY: The sun's much more of a concern than it was when she was a teenager.

Ms. DOMENICI: I do worry about it more because I know I'm wrinkled. And I was a sun goddess when I was younger.

AUBREY: Domenici says she ditched the baby oil ages ago and now buys sunscreens with an SPF rating of 30 or higher. SPF stands for sun protection factor. The same goes for Robb Carr, the dad of three children.

Mr. ROBB CARR (Parent): The higher the SPF, the better.

AUBREY: Dermatologists agree. SPF is important. But it's not the whole story. SPF is an indicator of how well a lotion protects against UVB rays. These are the rays that lead to sunburn. But there's a catch. Scientists now know it's also important to shield yourself from UVA rays.

Dermatologist Darrell Rigel of New York University says recent studies suggest that both can be damaging.

Dr. DARRELL RIGEL (Dermatologist, New York University): Both sets of rays cause both problems, both skin cancer and aging. And that's really why the push has been to get better UVA protection, which in the early sunscreens no one really cared about it because they thought that UVB was the culprit.

AUBREY: To make sure you're getting sunscreen with UVA protection, there are a few ingredients to look for. The most common one is a chemical called avobenzone. It shows up on labels under the name Parsol 1789. Products that contain it often say broad-spectrum protection on the front of the bottle.

Stanford University dermatologist Anna Bruckner says the problem with these sunscreens is that they don't hold up on the skin very long.

Dr. ANNA BRUCKNER (Dermatologist, Stanford University): They actually degrade very quickly when they're exposed to light, so the UVA coverage that they offer is really not very robust.

AUBREY: Most sunscreens wear off after two hours, but Bruckner says some products are better than others. She recommends sunblocks to her patients, particularly those made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Dr. BRUCKNER: The image that many people have in their head of the lifeguard with the white nose sitting under an umbrella.

AUBREY: That's the old way of using zinc oxide. Today sunscreens use finer particles of the compound, so there's no visible glob of white on your skin when you apply it. Bruckner says these products are gentler on the skin, and they protect against the sun by actually blocking and scattering the light.

Dr. BRUCKNER: They actually do have a fairly broad range of UVB and UVA protection. And they tend to be less irritating.

AUBREY: Particularly for people with sensitive skin.

Two newer options for longer-lasting protection are sunscreens made with stabilizing technologies that keep the active ingredients from breaking down. One of those processes is called Helioplex. And the other, sold in Europe as Mexoryl, is beginning to make its way to the U.S.

Dermatologist Darrell Rigel has consulted with Johnson and Johnson, the company that developed Helioplex. He says he likes that the products last about four hours.

Dr. RIGEL: The advantage of a Helioplex technology, as well as the Mexoryl technology, too, is that you don't have to reapply it every two hours or less.

AUBREY: There's a big price difference. Neutrogena's Helioplex sunscreens are about a third of the cost of the Mexoryl products. Rigel says perhaps the most important thing when it comes to sunscreens is to put on enough lotion. A full ounce is the recommended amount.

Dr. RIGEL: A shot glass is an ounce, so that's what it should take to cover your whole body if you're at the pool.

AUBREY: To demonstrate how much this is, we caught up with 16-year-old Peter Lansworth just as he was about to take a swim at his neighborhood pool in Silver Spring, Maryland. He admitted that he's not exactly religious about using sunscreen.

Mr. PETER LANSWORTH (Resident, Silver Spring, Maryland): A lot of the time I forget, or just - I'm careless about it. I feel like I tan more, but that's no excuse.

AUBREY: So Lansworth agreed to try to apply a full ounce of sunscreen.

If you put out your palm, I'll show you how much they are now recommending.

With lotion spilling out of his palm, Lansworth spread it on his arms first.

Mr. LANSWORTH: I am like soaking myself right now with suntan lotion. It's everywhere.

AUBREY: And that's an ounce. That's what's recommended. Do you think that's what people normally put on?

Mr. LANSWORTH: Not in one place, certainly.

AUBREY: Once it's spread out all over his body, a shot-glass-full doesn't seem like so much.

In the near future, there may be an easier way to determine whether a particular sunscreen has both UVA and UVB protection. The Food and Drug Administration is drafting a new regulation. Dermatologist Darrell Rigel says it will most likely build on the SPF rating system by adding a pass/fail rating for UVA rays.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: You can learn more about how UV rays damage your skin and get a list of essential sunscreen ingredients at our Web site,

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