A Sinister Summer Sun

The sun emits three types of ultraviolet radiation, but only UVA and UVB rays penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere to reach us. It was previously thought that UVA rays were harmless to humans.
(Source: NASA)

By Catherine Owsik

You walk around with that distinct redness, the bubbling skin and dropping flakes. It physically hurts, and everyone knows that it was caused by the sun. You think to yourself, ‘Next time, I will wear sunscreen.’ But what you may not realize is that many sunscreens, even those with a high SPF, may not protect you as much as they advertise … and a sunburn isn’t the worst that the sun can do to you.

There are two types of ultraviolet solar rays that reach the earth, UVA and UVB. UVB radiation has a shorter wavelength and doesn’t penetrate skin very deeply — they cause UV erythema, more commonly known as a sunburn.

Up until recently, little has been known about UVA rays. We always knew that they constituted over 95% of the solar radiation hitting us, but we didn’t know how they really affected our bodies. Up until recently, that is.

In the past, scientists believed that UVA radiation was a harmless part of our environment. However, with advances in technology scientists have been able to study the long wavelengths and throughout the past two decades they have discovered that UVA is in fact very harmful to our body. Ongoing studies are using artificial UVA sources and different conditions to determine the deep biological effects of UVA rays. It has been found that UVA radiation magnifies the damaging effects of UVB radiation (like a sunburn), while also causing wrinkles, discoloured sun spots and a loss of skin elasticity. All together these effects cause prematurely aged skin.

More alarming though is that the deep cellular penetration of UVA radiation is now considered to be a direct cause
of skin cancer.

The discovery that 95% of the sun’s rays are in fact dangerous caused a stir in society. Suddenly there was a new thing to fear, and product marketing responded accordingly.

Sunscreen has been commercially produced since the 1970’s and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has created restrictions on the products accordingly. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) was created to measure a sunscreen’s ability to block out UVB rays that caused burns. The higher the SPF, the more protection it offered from sunburns. However, a sunscreen’s SPF does not indicate its ability to block UVA radiation; and as of right now, there is no universally accepted method to measure UVA protection.

Unfortunately, once UVA was widely known to be dangerous, sunscreens popped up on shelves claiming to be “broad-spectrum” and the FDA allowed this, ruling that the term could be applied if even the slightest UVA protection was offered. This led to an abuse of the term and ultimately many North American sunscreens were falsely branding themselves as protecting against skin cancer and premature aging, without actually having the ingredients to properly do so. Surprisingly, many of these sunscreens, that are labeled with a high “broad-spectrum” SPF, are still on our shelves at local pharmacies.

The European Union, on the other hand, has been a leader in ensuring their sunscreens offer significant UVA protection. European sunscreen brands follow a standardizing rule that mandates a high SPF value to indicate both strong UVB and UVA protection. Likewise, a lower SPF value would also have lower UVA protection.

Today’s sunscreens come in a variety of options. Be careful which you choose, because some brands are very outdated. New FDA policy will have to force some of these bottles to be relabeled for 2013.
(Source: Owsik)

The FDA has been feebly trying to change their ways though. In 2007, they proposed to test all sunscreens for their ability to block UVA rays, and also to publicize this through a star-rating system on each bottle (one star would indicate low levels of protection and four stars would indicate the highest UVA protection). This testing and consumer-friendly scale was met with a tantrum of responses, and after 2,900 submissions were sent to the FDA the proposal was dropped and altered.

This past June (five years after the initial proposal) the FDA released their final ruling. Ultimately, they will enforce that “broad spectrum” sunscreens do offer high UVA protection through standardized testing. This will be similar to what they currently do to measure UVB protection. But, they will not indicate how much UVA protection each sunscreen offers.

Because this rule is being announced mid-Summer, when sunscreen sales are the highest, the FDA is allowing companies until December 17, 2012 to comply with this new guide. This means that the companies with virtually no UVA protection will remain labeled as “broad spectrum” for the rest of the summer. The FDA said that if they had made this rule immediately mandatory, then half of our product shelves would be empty and there may be a shortage of sunscreen products.

The most significant difference in the new FDA regulation is that they eliminated the idea of a star-rating system, which could have provided much needed comfort to consumers. However, they will implement a “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert” label on those products that don’t offer UVA protection.

For the remainder of the summer be careful which sunscreen you use.  Mexoryl and Tinosorb are two photostable elements that offer strong UVA protection; if you can find these in your sunscreen’s list of ingredients then you are most likely protected from UVA rays.

But, if you can’t remember those two names while shopping for sun protection, it may be worth it to switch to European brands for now.


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