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Study: Sunscreen Users Tend To Burn

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People who sit in the shade or wear protective clothing have a 30% lower risk of sunburn. (Photo: Friederike Graf)
People who sit in the shade or wear protective clothing have a 30% lower risk of sunburn. (Photo: Friederike Graf)


  • New study shows sunscreen users experience 23% more sunburns
  • Recent studies show users do not apply enough sunscreen to properly protect skin
  • FDA issues new sunscreen regulations and labels

A new study published by the journal Cancer Causes & Control suggests that those who apply a generous amount of sunscreen onto exposed areas of the body are more likely to experience painful, damaging sunburns.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey analyzed how 3,000 people in the US protect themselves from UV rays. Sunscreen was the most common form of protection, with over 30% of users choosing this form of sun protection. The second-place slot goes to shade seekers, who made up 25% of the testers. Finally hat wearers (16%) and those wearing long-sleeve shirts (6%) made up the distant third and fourth places.

Those who said they use sunscreen experienced 23% more sunburns within the last year. Even after researchers adjusted data for factors known to cause burning, the risk of multiple sunburns remained. Those who sought shade or wore protective clothing had a 30% lower risk of sunburn.

Results from the study do not suggest that people should avoid sunscreen or that sunscreen does not work: it was designed to observe patterns and not to prove cause and effect.

Need to Up Coverage

Dr. Eleni Linos believes that the most likely explanation for these findings are user error. Numerous studies have been released that suggest that many people do not apply enough sunscreen. A recent Brazilian study asked participants to cover their forearms with sunscreen. After 30 minutes, they were asked to re-apply to one forearm. After the first application, users only measured a quarter of the recommended 2 milligrams per square centimeter.

Eventually users only applied half of the recommended sunscreen dosage. Henry Lim, MD, believes that because people apply sunscreen, they are lulled into a false sense of security and remain in the sun for a longer period of time.

An Australian study recently proved that when using a mixture of UV protective measures, the risk of melanoma plummets by 50%. Because it may not always be possible to seek shade or wear long-sleeves, it is important to apply sunscreen correctly. The rule of thumb is to apply a golf-ball-sized amount for every exposed body part.

These blobs should be applied at least 30 minutes prior to entering the sunlight and reapplied every two hours. If swimming, sweating or using a spray sunscreen, the recommended reapplication time is 60-90 minutes.

Best & Worst Sunscreens

In June, the FDA issued new rules for sunscreen manufacturers, allowing for a new “broad-spectrum” label that will demonstrate the product's ability to protect against cancer-causing UVA rays as well as skin-burning UVB rays.

Starting next year, products have the option of sporting an SPF label or a “broad-spectrum” label, or both.

Reynold Tan, PhD, a scientist for the FDA's Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development, warns that the “broad-spectrum” labels may have an SPF value less than 15. As a result, he recommends that buyers scan for sunscreens that have both UVA and UVB labels.

Also, the FDA is banning the terms “sunblock,” “waterproof” and “sweatproof” due to misleading wording. Sunscreens can be labeled as “water resistant (40 minutes)” and “water resistant (80 minutes),” depending on how long the product can withstand immersion.

The Environmental Working Group does not recommend using sunscreens with hormone-disrupting chemicals, such as oxybenzone. Another EWG no-no that can land sunscreens on their product Hall of Shame is retinyl palmitate due to concerns that it may produce skin lesions.

The EWG also does not recommend sunscreen sprays because of the threat of consuming and breathing in harmful chemicals.

Key Statistics – Global Sunscreen/Sun Care Market (source: Euromonitor International)

  • The sale of sun care products in the US will grow to 7% in 2014, and be worth an estimated $1.6 billion. Merck is the US sector leader.
  • Sun care products in the UK will be worth £352 million and see a constant CAGR until 2014.
  • In China, the top market leaders for sun care products are L'Oreal, Shiseido and Nivea with 17%, 15% and 12% market share, respectively.

Key Players – Global Sunscreen/Sun Care Market

  • L'Oreal, Beiersdorf, Johnson & Johnson, Alliance Boots, Avon Products, Blistex, Clarins Limited, Estee Lauder Group, Energizer Holdings, Neutrogena, Lancaster, Merck, Shiseido, and Procter & Gamble

By Nicole Manuel for
Nicole Manuel is a freelance economics, finance and blog writer with a degree in economics and over two years of experience.

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