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Sunscreen Mistakes: Know the Difference Between UVA & UVB Rays

From the Show: Health Radio
Summary: What are the most common mistakes when applying sunscreen?
Air Date: 6/5/15
Duration: 10
Host: Melanie Cole, MS
Guest Bio: Dawn M. Holman, MPH
holmanDawn M. Holman, MPH, is a behavioral scientist in CDC's Division of Cancer Prevention and Control's Epidemiology and Applied Research Branch.

Much of her work focuses on identifying opportunities at the population level to reduce the incidence of cancer in the United States.

Ms. Holman has led the production of two supplemental journal issues: one in the Journal of Adolescent Health on opportunities for cancer prevention during pre-adolescence and adolescence and another in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on opportunities for cancer prevention during midlife. She also is working on similar projects that focus on cancer prevention opportunities during other periods within the lifespan.

Ms. Holman has a strong interest in skin cancer prevention and has taken a leadership role in many of the Division's skin cancer prevention efforts, including examining national surveillance data to describe trends and correlates of sun-protective behaviors, indoor tanning, and sunburns among U.S. adolescents and adults. In addition, Ms. Holman served as a lead writer for the Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer and as a member of the coordination team for The Community Guide review of community-level interventions to prevent skin cancer.

Ms. Holman completed her undergraduate education at the University of Georgia with a bachelor of science and earned her master of public health from Emory University. Before coming to CDC, Ms. Holman worked at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University as the project coordinator of the Pool Cool program, a research-based, sun-safety education program designed for use at outdoor swimming pools.
Sunscreen Mistakes: Know the Difference Between UVA & UVB Rays
Summer can be an exciting time, especially if you've been trapped inside all winter long. Even though you might want to take advantage of soaking up every minute of the sun's warmth, your skin might not be used to the exposure.

You actually should be wearing sunscreen all year round, and not just in the summer months. However, a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that only 14.3 percent of men and 29.9 percent of women regularly use sunscreen.

This might increase your chances of burning, as well as developing skin cancer.

According to the CDC, the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes.

What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays?

UVB rays are most powerful in summer months and are the reason for your sunburn. UVB rays have higher energy than UVA rays, which are prevalent year round and are most known for wrinkles and sunspots.

There are a lot of sunscreen options available. How do you choose the right sunscreen for you and your family?

Dawn M. Holman, MPH, joins Melanie Cole, MS, to discuss the difference between UVA and UVB rays and how you can protect yourself from the sun.

RadioMD PresentsMelanie Cole's Health Radio | Original Air Date: June 5, 2015
Host: Melanie Cole, MS
Guest: Dawn M. Holman, MPH

It’s Health Radio. Here’s Melanie Cole.

MELANIE: Summer is such a fun time and if you’ve been trapped inside all winter, you’ve got that sort of cabin fever. You’re ready to get outside. And even though you might want to take advantage of soaking up every minute of the sun – I like to just get out there in it when the summer comes--you might have been told that you should be wearing sunscreen all year round, not even just for the summer months. However, a recent study conducted by the CDC found that only 14% of men - that would be my husband - and 29% of women regularly even use sunscreen. My guest today is Dawn Holman. She is a behavioral scientist in the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control’s Epidemiology and Applied Research Branch.

Welcome to the show, Dawn. Cool job. Tell us a little bit about UVA versus UVB rays. Which ones are more dangerous? Or are they both pretty much bad?

DAWN: Both of them are not so great for your skin. The sun’s rays, we experience it when we’re outdoors in the sun. We get exposed to both UVA and UVB rays from the sun. Both of these types of radiation can increase your risk for skin cancer. The main difference between the two is that UVB rays are really the ones that cause sunburn. I always remember that by “B” for burn. UVB rays cause sunburn. UVA rays are able to penetrate a little bit deeper into your skin, so they are actually the rays that increase your risk for premature skin aging like wrinkles and age spots.

MELANIE: Okay. There are so many millions of sunscreens out there on the market – millions of them. That go all the way up to 120. I saw one. How do we look at all of those sun screens, Dawn and figure out which ones are going to keep us from the burning rays? Which ones from the tanning rays? Which ones – what do we do?

DAWN: I know. There are so many sunscreens out there on the market, but it’s actually pretty simple. There are three key things I want to remind folks to look for when they are choosing a sunscreen. The first is simply make sure the label says broad spectrum. That ensures that you are getting protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Second – make sure that the SPF is an SPF of at least 15 or higher. And, usually, we remind people that once you get above an SPF 50, the added protection is very minimal. Third, I always like to encourage people to check the expiration date especially if you are digging through sunscreen at home that you maybe haven’t used for a while.

MELANIE: Good point.

DAWN: Just to make sure that your sunscreen, or the sunscreen that you are about to purchase hasn’t expired and won’t expire before you plan to use it.

MELANIE: That is a great, great point. Sunscreen has to be put on. For kids, this is never an easy thing. You have to grab the little kiddos, the little runners and spray them down and then let them go out again and this is not that easy. Do you have a preference between some of these sprays that are out there versus a cream, a thick lathery cream?

DAWN: Well, CDC doesn’t have any specific recommendations currently about spray-on sunscreen versus the lotions that you would apply by hand. But there have been some concerns raised by the FDA – which is the organization that actually regulates sunscreen products. The main concern is that when you are putting on sunscreen you want to make sure that you’re applying it thickly and, of course, that you are covering all exposed skin. With some of these spray-ons that can be a little bit of a challenge and even just if you are spraying it on outside if a wind gust comes, it blows it away before it even reaches your skin.

MELANIE: That’s right.

DAWN: And it is just hard to make sure that you are applying it as thickly and as evenly as you need to be. Generally, the lotions and creams are a little bit easier to apply effectively.

MELANIE: So, what about those generic ones. Walgreens has a brand you see. Coppertone and then, right next to it you see the generic brand. Is it like medication? I mean, do we worry about the generic brand? Do we think it may not have the same ingredients? And what can we do to encourage people who don’t want to put on sunscreen to finally do it?

DAWN: There are two questions there. The first, if you’re looking at sunscreens, generic versus the specific brand you are familiar with, you still just need to go back to those three key things I mentioned. Make sure it’s broad spectrum, SPF 15 or higher and that it hasn’t expired. If you check those three things, you can be confident that sunscreen will provide adequate protection to help prevent sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer. As we found with our study results and as you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, a lot of people aren’t using sunscreen. For some people, maybe for whatever reason that’s not something that they will ever be interested in doing. But, fortunately, there are other forms of protection. I’ll use that to also mention to folks that we really encourage sunscreen to be paired with other forms of protection. We encourage you not to just use sunscreen alone, but use it in combination with other things. For example, when you are outdoors in the sun, you can seek shade which can provide full body protection from the sun. Also during the hot summer months, it really provides a lot of relief from the heat. You can also rely on protective clothing like shirts with long sleeves or pants. Wide brim hats are great because they cover the face but also the back of the neck and the ears, which happen to be places that people tend to forget to put on sunscreen sometimes and we also really encourage folks to use sunglasses to protect their eyes. Another great strategy is just rethinking the timing of your outdoor activities. So, just scheduling your activities a little bit earlier in the day or kind of later in the afternoon or early evening can really reduce your UV exposure while you’re outside.

MELANIE: Okay. So, we try all of these things and you mentioned sunglasses because I always find that interesting. You see a parent sitting on the beach with sunglasses on and their kids are running around without them on. And little kids’ little eyes can burn even faster than adults. That’s a really good one and the hat, too. So, is this something do you think, Dawn, that doctors should be bringing up with their patients about? Dermatologists do, but what about regular docs?

DAWN: Definitely. It is a great idea for doctors to encourage their patients to use sun protection and to remind parents to protect their kids. But, in particular, we have great evidence showing that counseling in a clinical setting – so, by your physician, or nurse, or another practioner - counseling for fair skinned patients between the ages of 10 and 25 about skin cancer prevention has actually been shown to lead to improvements in their use of sun protection and reduce their use of indoor tanning. We know that doctors talking to their patients works.

MELANIE: You know what I heard works, too, especially with the younger set, Dawn, is appealing to their vanity. As opposed to skin cancer, which they don’t believe they’ll ever get. Then, you talk about wrinkles and the nasty look of a face with those marks on them and having basal cell things removed from your face and your scalp. Those kinds of things tend to work in that sort of kind of scared straight tactic. What do you think?

DAWN: That’s a great point. We’ve seen that work really well with folks who are into tanning and use either sunbathing outdoors or indoor tanning as a way to get a tan. They are very appearance focused anyway, so you are tapping into that motivation to keep their skin looking healthy and youthful. And we know that UV exposure is one of the key causes of premature skin aging. So, the wrinkles and age spots that everyone tries to avoid. And I think that also just encouraging people to use some protection so they avoid getting a sunburn because no one wants that because it doesn’t look good and it can be painful and uncomfortable.

MELANIE: Absolutely. In the last 30 seconds, Dawn, sum it up for us. Give us your best advice as a CDC research scientist, cool job that you have in sunscreen and why we have been using it wrong. Just about 30 seconds here.

DAWN: I would just say we all need to take responsibility for keeping our skin healthy and safe and helping our children stay sun safe and that, of course, includes using sunscreen while you’re outdoors in the sun. Look for SPF 15 or higher and be sure that sunscreen is broad spectrum. Be sure to pair it with other forms of protection like clothing, wide brim hats and staying in the shade.

MELANIE: Thank you. It’s great information. If you missed any of the great information that we’re giving here, you can listen anytime on demand or on the go at You can listen to us on iHeartRadio and download the segments on iTunes. Share them you’re your friends. Put them on Facebook. We’re all over the place. That way everybody gets to learn together.

This is Melanie Cole for RadioMD. The show is Health Radio. Stay well.