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Understanding Sunscreens

By: Rebecca James Gadberry
Posted: June 23, 2008, from the June 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

page 6 of 7

Q.I have a client who went to Mexico for vacation and burned with the SPF 30 she’s worn in the sun at home for years. Why did this happen?

A .Climate, altitude, time of year, medication, disease, cloud cover and even the number of reflective surfaces—water, sand, snow and cement—can increase the effects of UV hitting the skin. If a person burns in their backyard in June in 15 minutes, they would be able to stay out in the same backyard in June for three and a half hours with an SPF 15. But if that same person goes to a high-altitude location, such as Aspen, Colorado, in June on a cloudy day and has been taking diuretics for several days, that SPF is going to change and they are going to burn faster. In fact, the SPF could be cut in half, allowing the person to stay in the sun for less than two hours. The same is true if your client moved from a northern climate, such as New Jersey, to one closer to the equator, such as Mexico. The message here: SPF isn’t specific to the person; it’s specific to the environment and conditions of exposure. Be sure to take all these points into consideration when advising someone in the selection of a sunscreen.

Q. Are ingredients such as carrot oil, walnut extract, aloe and beta carotene natural sunscreens? If they are, why don’t more manufacturers use them instead of chemicals such as benzophenone and octyl methoxycinnamate?

A .It doesn’t matter whether or not these ingredients are natural sunscreens. The FDA doesn’t recognize them as such, so you can’t claim them to be. The only ingredients that are recognized by the FDA as sunscreens in these OTC drugs are the following chemicals.

  • Aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Avobenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Octinoxate (formerly octyl methoxycinnamate)
  • Octocrylene
  • Octyl salicylate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Padimate O
  • Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Trolamine salicylate
  • Zinc oxide