The Truth Behind Sunscreen

Skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the U.S.; over 3.5 million cases are reported annually, and one out of every five American citizens is projected to develop skin cancer in their lifetime according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. Further, 40 to 50 percent of Americans over the age of 65 will be diagnosed with skin cancer—be it with squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, or melanoma—at least once. sunscreen

Shielding Yourself from the Sun

With those statistics, it is essential for own health to shield yourself when you’re out in the sun. Although protective clothing—like surf shirts and sun hats—are gaining popularity (no matter their dorky appearance), sunscreen still reigns king as the first defense against harmful rays. However, it’s important now, more than ever, to learn that not all sunblocks are created equal.

Sunscreen Facts

Introduced to the American consumer market in the 1960s, sunscreen is essentially a topical substance that reflects or absorbs some of the sun’s radiation, protecting skin against ultraviolet (UV) burns.  Sunscreen is normally available in cream form, but new products such as spray-on SPFs are becoming increasingly popular. Sunscreens vary, but all of them contain one or more of the following: an organic compound that absorbs UV light; inorganic particles that absorb and/or reflect UV light—like zinc oxide; and/or organic particulates that scatter light differently than just organic compounds or inorganic particles. Essentially, sunblock is either physical, meaning it reflects sunlight, or chemical, meaning it absorbs UV rays.


One of the most obvious variances in sunblocks is the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) that they possess. SPF protects against UVB rays, which cause sunburn, and the number of SPF, usually ranging from about 5 to 80, is supposed to give an indication of how much protection you’re applying to your skin. However, if you investigate SPF a bit further, you will learn that protection numbers are a bit of an illusion. An SPF of 15 already filters about 93 percent of UVB rays, whereas an SPF 30 typically filters out about 97 percent, and an SPF 50 about 98 percent of harmful UVB radiation.

On the other hand, according to the Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society Dr. Otis Brawley, if you’re someone who burns easily, a SPF of 30 could end up giving about an SPF 10’s worth of protection. If you’re almost immune to sunburn, the same product could provide as much defense as an SPF 50+.

More, some doctors and activists are proposing a change to the SPF labeling system. Many insist that levels above 50—so, SPF 60, 70, 80 and beyond—are unnecessary and misleading, giving no more sun protection than an SPF 30; some even insist that no labels should be marked above “SPF 30+”. In fact, instead of upping your SPF level, many doctors and professionals simply recommend that you ensure to apply an adequate amount of sunscreen before you go outside. A suggested level of full sunblock protection is one ounce to cover your entire body per day, or after every two hours of high sun exposure.

Importantly, SPF levels don’t protect against UVA rays—the waves that cause skin aging as well as some forms of cancer. In the last few years, sunscreens that block UVB and UVA radiation have hit the market, causing a flurry of studies on sunscreen and its positive, cancer-preventative effects. Doctors often recommend purchasing these broad-spectrum UVA solutions because even though they do not prevent sunburn, they dramatically decrease rates of melanoma among sun-exposed persons.

If you’re searching for more tips on how to choose the best sunscreen for your skin and activity level, check out the Skin Cancer Foundation’s “Seal of Recommendation.” 

Now that you are equipped with all of this knowledge about sun protection, put it to use next time you are outside exposed to harmful sun rays.

More Reading:

Mayo Clinic:

Skin Cancer Foundation

Sun Safety Alliance:

“The Truth about SPFs, Sunscreen Types, Protection.”

External links provided on are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced.

This article was written by Rasmussen College - School of Health Sciences. Founded in 1900, Rasmussen College is a premier provider of educational experiences, dedicated to the growth and development of its students, employees, and the communities it serves. Rasmussen College offers Bachelor’s and Associate’s degrees in fields with the greatest occupation opportunities to more than 15,000 students both online and through its campus locations.

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