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Why Your Sunscreen May Not Protect Against Skin Damage- Even if it Prevents Sunburn

Posted by Katie Zapotoczny on

Why Your Sunscreen May Not Protect Against Sun Damage

Now that it's summertime, you may be using sunscreen more frequently. It probably comes as no surprise that some sunscreens are more effective than others. But you may not be aware that your sunscreen might not be protecting you from all types of UV damage- even if it IS preventing you from getting burned. 

How UV Rays Affect Your Skin

There are two main types of ultraviolet rays: UVB and UVA. UVB rays generally only penetrate the outer layers of the skin (the epidermis) and are responsible for sunburns. These rays are stronger during the middle of the day and weaker in the mornings and evenings. They may also cause pre-cancerous DNA mutations in the skin. 

In contrast, UVA rays are more numerous than UVB rays. They also remain constant at all hours of daylight and throughout the year. UVA rays cause tanning, promote aging of the skin, and are able to penetrate into deeper layers of the skin (the dermis). They can trigger an inflammatory response in the skin and suppress immune system function, possibly promoting a mechanism that encourages the development of cancer

And if all that isn't enough, UVA rays also generate free radicals, highly unstable molecules that can cause a lot of damage at the cellular and tissue levels. Given this information, it's clear that it is very important to protect the skin against both forms of radiation, but especially against UVA rays.

The Problem with SPF

Consumers often use a sunscreen's SPF rating when selecting a sunscreen. And many assume that the higher the SPF, the stronger the sun protection. We'll get into whether or not that's true in a moment, but first, a few words on what the SPF of a product actually means.

The SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, of a product indicates how long it would take a person to burn when using that product. Assuming that the sunscreen is used correctly, a person who would normally burn after 20 minutes in the sun, would take 10 hours to burn using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 (20 minutes times 30 equals 600 minutes, or 10 hours).  

The problem with SPF ratings is that they only measure how well a sunscreen protects against UVB rays (the rays that cause sunburn), while saying nothing about UVA rays (recall that UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin and trigger the formation of highly damaging free radicals). 

Until fairly recently, sunscreens didn't even protect against UVA rays, they only filtered out sunburn-causing UVB rays. This is in part because the FDA expressed concerns about the damage to skin caused by sunburns. Of course, sunburns do damage the skin, but research over the past few decades has indicated that skin damage can also occur in the absence of burns. Furthermore, a person using sunscreen may, understandably, assume that, because he or she didn't get a sunburn, the sunscreen provided adequate protection. 

Today, there are numerous "broad spectrum" sunscreens- products that claim to filter both UVA and UVB rays, but they vary widely in terms of their effectiveness. Weak regulations make it easy for manufacturers to claim that their products are broad spectrum, even though some products are much more effective than others. 

And while many sunscreen ingredients filter out UVB rays quite well (if the sunscreen is used properly), there are only two ingredients approved for use in the U.S. that protect against UVA: zinc oxide and avobenzone. Of these two, zinc oxide is, in my opinion, the better ingredient because avobenzone can actually break down in the sun unless it is combined with some kind of stabilizer. Zinc oxide creates a physical barrier on the skin that blocks both types of UV rays. 

So, although a high SPF sunscreen may increase the amount of time that it takes to burn, it may still allow harmful UVA rays to penetrate into and damage the skin.  

The Best Defenses Against Sun Damage

Using sunscreen can give people a false sense of security and cause them to stay out in the sun longer than they otherwise would. However, if it's not used properly (i.e. applied every two hours or more frequently after swimming and applied thickly enough), sun damage can still occur. Furthermore, as I mentioned above, not all sunscreens provide adequate UVA protection. So while sunscreen is an important tool for preventing some types of skin damage, it should not be the only one you use. Here are a few other ways to protect your skin:

Clothing and Hats

Cotton clothing provides about SPF 15, and wide-brimmed hats provide important protection for your head and neck. Swim shirts are also extremely effective at preventing damage on the chest, back, and shoulders while swimming. 


If you're going to be outdoors for extended periods of time, be sure to find or make your own shade.

Healthy Diet

It's not always possible to control your exposure to the sun. But a healthy diet can help prepare your skin for overexposure. Consuming foods high in antioxidants, including dark colored fruits and vegetables, can help prevent free radical damage. Fresh, unprocessed foods can also help maintain a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 oils, and healthy fats in the skin protect against sunburn. 

Topical Antioxidants

Applying antioxidants directly to the skin has also been shown to help mitigate the effects of the sun. Many sunscreens and moisturizers (including our Sea Buckthorn Facial Cream) contain antioxidant ingredients such as vitamins C and E, sea buckthorn oil, pomegranate extract, and others, that help neutralize free radicals generated by UV rays.

Final Thoughts

Sunscreen can help protect your skin from UV damage. However, it is important to use products that block both UVB and UVA rays (preferably sunscreens with zinc oxide). Sunscreen must also be applied thickly enough and frequently enough to be fully effective. Sunscreen, used in combination with the other protections listed above, can help prevent long-term skin damage in you and your family. 

How do you protect your skin from the sun? Comment below!


"Do Sunscreens Prevent Skin Damage?" Environmental Working Group. Web. 7 June 2017.

"Imperfect Protection: EWG's Analysis of UV Protection Offered by U.S. Sunscreens." Environmental Working Group. Web. 7 June 2017.

Mercola, Joseph. "New Study Shows Many Sunscreens are Accelerating, Not Preventing, Cancer." 22 April 2011. Web. 8 June 2017.

"What Does SPF Stand For?" Consumer Reports. 15 May 2015. Web. 7 June 2017.

About the Author

Katie Zapotoczny is a Verefina Communications Specialist. She is also the creator of An Ever Green Life, a blog that seeks to empower readers to make changes that will improve their health and help protect our environment.

  • sunscreen
  • zinc oxide
  • UV rays
  • UV damage
  • skin cancer
  • antioxidants
  • free radicals

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