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Sunscreen | Understanding and definition of Sunscreen | The use of sunscreen

Sunblock (also commonly known as sun screen, sun lotion, sun cream or block out) is a lotion, spray, gel or other topical product that absorbs or reflects some of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation on the skin exposed to sunlight and thus helps protect against sunburn. Skin lightening products have sunscreen to protect lightened skin because light skin is more susceptible to sun damage than darker skin.

Sunscreens contain one or more of the following ingredients:

  1. Organic chemical compounds that absorb ultraviolet light.
  2. Inorganic particulates that reflect, scatter, and absorb UV light (such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or a combination of both).
  3. Organic particulates that mostly absorb light like organic chemical compounds, but contain multiple chromophores, may reflect and scatter a fraction of light like inorganic particulates, and behave differently in formulations than organic chemical compounds. An example is Tinosorb M. Since the UV-attenuating efficacy depends strongly on particle size, the material is micronised to particle sizes below 200 nm. The mode of action of this photostable filter system is governed to about 90% by absorption and 10% by scattering of UV light.
Depending on the mode of action sunscreens can be classified into physical sunscreens (i.e. those which reflect the sunlight) or chemical sunscreens (i.e. those which absorb the UV light).

Medical organizations such as the American Cancer Society recommend the use of sunscreen because it prevents the squamous cell carcinoma and the basal cell carcinoma. However, the use of sunscreens is controversial for various reasons. Many sunscreens do not block UVA radiation, which does not cause sunburn but can increase the rate of melanoma, another kind of skin cancer, so people using sunscreens may be exposed to a high level UVA without realizing it.

It is often colloquially called sun tan lotion due to the product's similar name, although sun tan lotion is used to absorb UV rays rather than block them.

The dose used in FDA sunscreen testing is 2 mg/cm² of exposed skin. Provided one assumes an "average" adult build of height 5 ft 4 in (163 cm) and weight 150 lb (68 kg) with a 32 in (82 cm) waist, that adult wearing a bathing suit covering the groin area should apply 29 g (approximately 1 oz) evenly to the uncovered body area. Considering only the face, this translates to about 1/4 to 1/3 of a teaspoon for the average adult face. Larger individuals should scale these quantities accordingly.

Contrary to the common advice that sunscreen should be reapplied every 2–3 hours, some research has shown that the best protection is achieved by application 15–30 minutes before exposure, followed by one reapplication 15–30 minutes after the sun exposure begins. Further reapplication is only necessary after activities such as swimming, sweating, or rubbing/wiping.

However, more recent research at the University of California, Riverside, indicates that sunscreen needs to be reapplied within 2 hours in order to remain effective. Not reapplying could even cause more cell damage than not using sunscreen at all, due to the release of extra free radicals from those sunscreen chemicals which were absorbed into the skin. Some studies have shown that people commonly apply only 1/2 to 1/4 of the amount recommended to achieve the rated sun protection factor (SPF), and in consequence the effective SPF should be downgraded to a square or 4th root of the advertised value.

The first effective sunscreen may have been developed by chemist Franz Greiter in 1938. The product, called Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream), subsequently became the basis for the company Piz Buin (named in honor of the place Greiter allegedly obtained the sunburn that inspired his concoction), which is still today a marketer of sunscreen products. It has been estimated that Gletscher Crème had a sun protection factor of 2.

The first widely used sunscreen was produced by Benjamin Green, an airman and later a pharmacist, in 1944. The product, Red Vet Pet (for red veterinary petrolatum), had limited effectiveness, working as a physical blocker of ultraviolet radiation. It was a disagreeable red, sticky substance similar to petroleum jelly. This product was developed during the height of World War II, when it was likely that the hazards of sun overexposure were becoming apparent to soldiers in the Pacific and to their families at home. Sales of this product boomed when Coppertone acquired the patent and marketed the substance under the Coppertone girl and Bain de Soleil branding in the early 1950s.

Franz Greiter is credited with introducing the concept of sun protection factor (SPF) in 1962, which has become a worldwide standard for measuring the effectiveness of sunscreen when applied at an even rate of 2 milligrams per square centimeter (mg/cm2). Some controversy exists over the usefulness of SPF measurements, especially whether the 2 mg/cm2 application rate is an accurate reflection of people’s actual use.

Newer sunscreens have been developed with the ability to withstand contact with water, heat and sweat.

As a defense against UV radiation, the amount of the brown pigment melanin in the skin increases when exposed to moderate (depending on skin type) levels of radiation; this is commonly known as a sun tan. The purpose of melanin is to absorb UV radiation and dissipate the energy as harmless heat, blocking the UV from damaging skin tissue. UVA gives a quick tan that lasts for days by oxidizing melanin that was already present and triggers the release of the melanin from melanocytes. UVB on the other hand yields a tan that takes roughly two days to develop because it stimulates the body to produce more melanin. The photochemical properties of melanin make it an excellent photoprotectant.

Sunscreen chemicals on the other hand cannot dissipate the energy of the excited state as efficiently as melanin and therefore the penetration of sunscreen ingredients into the lower layers of the skin increases the amount of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS).

Some sunscreen lotions now include compounds such as titanium dioxide which helps protect against UVB rays. Other UVA blocking compounds found in sunscreen include zinc oxide and avobenzone. There are also naturally occurring compounds found in rainforest plants that have been known to protect the skin from UV radiation damage, such as the fern Phlebodium aureum.

Some sunscreen chemicals produce potentially harmful substances if they are illuminated while in contact with living cells. The amount of sunscreen which penetrates through the stratum corneum may or may not be large enough to cause damage. In one study of sunscreens, the authors write:

The question whether UV filters acts on or in the skin has so far not been fully answered. Despite the fact that an answer would be a key to improve formulations of sun protection products, many publications carefully avoid addressing this question.

George Zachariadis and E Sahanidou of the Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry, at Aristotle University, in Thessaloniki, Greece, have now carried out an ICP-AES analysis of several commercially available sunscreen creams and lotions. "The objective was the simultaneous determination of titanium and several minor, trace or toxic elements (aluminum, zinc, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, chromium, lead, and bismuth) in the final products," the researchers say. They concluded that "Most of the commercial preparations that were studied showed generally good agreement to the ingredients listed on the product label." However, they also point out that the quantitative composition of the products tested cannot be assessed because the product labels usually do not provide a detailed break down of all ingredients and their concentrations. They also point out that, worryingly, their tests consistently revealed the presence of elements not cited in the product formulation, which emphasized the need for a standardized and official testing method for multi-element quality control of these products.

Some epidemiological studies indicate an increased risk of malignant melanoma for the sunscreen user. Despite these studies, no medical association has published recommendations to not use sunblock. Different meta-analysis publications have concluded that the evidence is not yet sufficient to claim a positive correlation between sunscreen use and malignant melanoma.

Adverse health effects may be associated with some synthetic compounds in sunscreens. In 2007 two studies by the CDC highlighted concerns about the sunscreen chemical oxybenzone (benzophenone-3). The first detected the chemicals in greater than 95% of 2000 Americans tested, while the second found that mothers with high levels of oxybenzone in their bodies were more likely to give birth to underweight baby girls.

The use of sunscreen also interferes with vitamin D production, leading to deficiency in Australia after a government campaign to increase sunscreen use. Doctors recommend spending small amounts of time in the sun without sun protection to ensure adequate production of vitamin D. When the UV index is greater than 3 (which occurs daily within the tropics and daily during the spring and summer seasons in temperate regions) adequate amounts of vitamin D3 can be made in the skin after only ten to fifteen minutes of sun exposure at least two times per week to the face, arms, hands, or back without sunscreen. With longer exposure to UVB rays, an equilibrium is achieved in the skin, and the vitamin simply degrades as fast as it is generated.

"There is evidence from isolated cell experiments that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can induce free radical formation in the presence of light and that this may damage these cells (photo-mutagenicity with zinc oxide). However, this would only be of concern in people using sunscreens if the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide penetrated into viable skin cells. The weight of current evidence is that they remain on the surface of the skin and in the outer dead layer (stratum corneum) of the skin."

The principal ingredients in sunscreens are usually aromatic molecules conjugated with carbonyl groups. This general structure allows the molecule to absorb high-energy ultraviolet rays and release the energy as lower-energy rays, thereby preventing the skin-damaging ultraviolet rays from reaching the skin. So, upon exposure to UV light, most of the ingredients (with the notable exception of avobenzone) do not undergo significant chemical change, allowing these ingredients to retain the UV-absorbing potency without significant photodegradation. A chemical stabilizer is included in some sunscreens containing avobenzone to slow its breakdown - examples include formulations containing Helioplex and AvoTriplex. The stability of avobenzone can also be improved by bemotrizinol, octocrylene and various other photostabilisers.

Excessive exposure to direct sunlight is potentially harmful. Excessive exposure can result in sunburn if a person does not wear sun protective clothing or use suitable sunscreen. Products with a higher SPF (Sun Protection Factor) level provide greater protection against ultraviolet radiation. However in 1998, the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that some sunscreens advertising UVA and UVB protection do not provide adequate safety from UVA radiation and could give sun tanners a false sense of protection. A sunscreen should also be hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic so it doesn't cause a rash or clog the pores, which can cause acne.

For those who choose to tan, some dermatologists recommend the following preventative measures:
  1. Sunscreens should block both UVA and UVB rays. These are called broad-spectrum sunscreens, which should also be hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic so it doesn't cause a rash or clog the pores, which can cause acne.
  2. Sunscreens need to be applied thickly enough to get the full SPF protection.
  3. Sunscreens should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before exposure, followed by one reapplication 15 to 30 minutes after the sun exposure begins. Further reapplication is only necessary after activities such as swimming, sweating, and rubbing.
  4. Sun rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm. Sun rays are stronger at higher elevations (mountains) and lower latitudes (near the equator).
  5. Wearing a hat with a brim and anti-UV sunglasses can provide almost 100% protection against ultraviolet radiation entering the eyes.
  6. Reflective surfaces like snow and water can greatly increase the amount of UV radiation to which the skin is exposed.
Recent evidence indicates that caffeine and caffeine sodium benzoate increase UVB-induced apoptosis both in topical and oral applications. In mice, UVB-induced hyperplasia was greatly reduced with administration of these substances. Although studies in humans remain untested, caffeine and caffeine sodium benzoate may be novel inhibitors of skin cancer.

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