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Sunscreen Users More Likely to Burn?

Regular Sunscreen Use May Give False Sense of Security From Sunburn

WebMD Health News

July 14, 2011 -- People who say they vigilantly apply sunscreen are more likely to experience painful, damaging sunburns, a new study shows.

The study, the first to look at how people in the U.S. shield themselves from the sun and how well those different strategies work, analyzed information on more than 3,000 white adults that was collected through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Sunscreen was the most commonly used kind of protection, grabbing the top spot with 30% of people saying they regularly apply it when they’re outside for longer than an hour.

The next most common skin-saving strategies were seeking shade (25% said they frequently stayed under cover when the sun was blazing), wearing a hat (16%), and donning long sleeves (6%).

People who said they frequently used sunscreen, however, had 23% greater risk of multiple sunburns in the past year compared to people who said they seldom used the stuff. 

Those who frequently sought shade and pulled on long sleeves, however, had about a 30% lower sunburn risk compared to people who rarely used those measures.

Those risks remained even after researchers corrected for factors known to influence burn risk, including the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, alcohol use, season, physical activity, age, gender, education, and income.

Avoiding Sun Important, Too

“I really like this study,” says Ronald P. Rapini, MD, professor and chairman of the department of dermatology at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “I’ve always felt the same way, and I tell my patients the same thing.”

“Just last week, one of my melanoma patients came in with a sunburn all over their back, and I said, ‘What happened?’ and they said, ‘Well, I had sunscreen.’ But they missed an area on their back, which is what always happens. They think that they can stay out in the sun because they’re using sunscreen, and the truth is it doesn’t really cover stuff that well,” says Rapini, who was not involved in the research.

“Myself, personally, I’m a dermatologist, and I don’t even wear sunscreen all that much. I stay in the shade,” he says. “I try to stay out of the sun.”

The study is published in the journal Cancer Causes & Control.

More Sunscreen, More Sunburns

“I was quite surprised to find the associations that we’ve found with the different types of sun protection,” says study researcher Eleni Linos, MD, DrPH, MPH, a dermatologist at Stanford University. 

“What we saw was that wearing long-sleeved clothing, wearing a hat, and staying in the shade were associated with fewer sunburns,” she says. “However, wearing sunscreen was actually associated with more sunburns.”

Linos is quick to point out that her results don’t mean that sunscreen doesn’t work or shouldn’t be used.

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