Sunscreens, skin photobiology, and skin cancer: the need for UVA protection and evaluation of efficacy.

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This article has been peer reviewed. It was published in: Environmental health perspectives.

2000 Mar;108 Suppl 1:71-8.

The published version is available at PMID: 10698724. Copyright © National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences


Sunscreens are ultraviolet radiation (UVR)-absorbing chemicals that attenuate the amount and nature of UVR reaching viable cells in the skin. They are selected and tested for their ability to prevent erythema. No sunscreen prevents photodamage, as it has been demonstrated that suberythemal doses of UVR cause a variety of molecular changes (including DNA damage) in these cells. Furthermore, the spectrum of UVR reaching viable cells is altered by topically applied sunscreen. In this review, the basic aspects of sunscreens and skin photobiology are reviewed briefly. Although there can be no question concerning the efficacy of sunscreens for the prevention of erythema, questions remain because of the possible cumulative effects of chronic suberythemal doses and the increased exposure of skin cells to longer UVR wavelengths. The current major issue surrounding sunscreens involves their ability to protect skin cells against the effects of UVA radiation. These UVA effects may be direct damage (base oxidations) or effects on the skin immune system, yet there is no uniformly accepted method for the evaluation of UVA protection. This review is focused primarily on the latter topic covering action spectra that implicate the need for UVA protection. In addition, in vivo and in vitro methods proposed for the evaluation of candidate sunscreen formulations of UVA protective ability are reviewed. Finally, revisions in the terminology used to describe the protection afforded by sunscreens are suggested. It is proposed that SPF ("sun" protection factor) be renamed "sunburn" protection factor and that "critical wavelength" be designated "long wave index."

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