Advancements in Sunscreen and Skin Cancer Treatment

By Rosanna Sutherby, PharmD

June 15, 2020


As the weather gets warmer, many are naturally spending more time outside. This means more exposure to the sun and more focus on sunscreen and sun protection to prevent sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. Although melanoma accounts for only 1% of all skin cancers, it causes the most number of skin cancer deaths because it is most likely to spread to other parts of the body.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that starts in the melanocytes, which are the cells in your skin that make melanin. Melanin is the pigment that makes your skin tan or brown, and it protects your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Melanoma occurs when melanocytes grow out of control and form a tumor.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that about 100,000 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed in 2020. However, when caught and treated early before it spreads to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate for people with melanoma is over 90%.

Protecting yourself from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays is essential to preventing skin cancer. Sunscreens and sunblocks have come a long way from the oily or white creams that originated in 1946. Read on to learn what skin cancer prevention and skin cancer treatment look like today.

What Is the Difference Between Sunscreen and Sunblock?

Sunscreen contains chemicals that absorb the sun’s UV rays before they can penetrate and damage your skin. Sunblock forms a protective barrier on top of your skin that prevents the sun’s UV rays from passing through.

Ingredients that act as sunscreen include:

  • oxybenzone
  • avobenzone
  • octinoxate
  • octisalate

Ingredients that act as sunblock include:

  • zinc oxide
  • titanium dioxide

What’s New with Sunscreen

Although popular sunscreens have been effective in protecting your skin from damage related to UV rays, there have been reports suggesting that active ingredients, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, and others, may be absorbed into your skin in higher amounts than previously known. The effect of these chemicals circulating in your blood is unknown, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed further research to determine safety standards.

While research continues, the FDA recommends that you continue to use sunscreen and other protective measures to avoid sunburn and prevent skin cancer and premature skin aging.

If you are concerned about chemicals that your body may absorb from your sunscreen or find the white film left on your skin by traditional sunblock less than appealing, newer options are available.

Scientists have recently developed sunscreen that contains tiny particles, or nanoparticles, of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Reducing the size of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles to minuscule sizes before adding them to your sunscreen allows for non-chemical protection without producing the white, pasty look of traditional sunblock.

Examples of sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles include the following:

  • Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
  • Aveeno Positively Mineral Sunscreen
  • Vibriance Sheer Zinc Sunscreen
  • Bio Secrets Sunscreen Gel

These and other nanoparticle mineral sunscreens go on clear on your skin and form a barrier made up of micronized particles that help deflect the sun’s UV rays, preventing them from entering your skin.

Advances in Skin Cancer Treatment

Melanoma maintains a high survival rate when caught and treated early. However, researchers continue to search for better treatment for melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body. Scientists have made advances in the treatment of both early-stage melanoma and more advanced skin cancer.

Surgery to remove the melanoma tumor is still the standard treatment for melanoma that has not spread, but new drugs have been developed that target mutations in melanoma cells or that use the body’s immune system to fight the cancer cells.

Targeted Therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs that block the effects of mutations in specific genes that can lead to the growth of melanoma cells. Medications currently approved for targeted therapy for melanoma include the following:

Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors

Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) are a type of immunotherapy that enables your body’s T cells to kill cancer cells without killing healthy cells. ICIs currently approved to treat melanoma include the following:

Adoptive Cell Therapy

Adoptive cell therapy (ACT) is a type of immunotherapy being tested for the treatment of melanoma that has spread to other parts of the body. ACT uses T cells harvested from the patient’s own blood or tumor. The cells are multiplied in large numbers in the laboratory and given back to the patient to enhance the immune system’s ability to fight the cancer cells. Sometimes, the T cells are modified in the laboratory to make them better at killing cancer cells.

Researchers are continuing to study new treatments for melanoma, including using combination therapies and safer or more effective ways to use currently approved drugs.

Melanoma has a high survival rate when detected and treated early. Doctors recommend doing a skin self-exam once a month to check for any changes in skin marks and coloration. The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays by using sunscreen or sunblock regularly, wearing protective clothing, and limiting your time in the sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It’s a great time to be outdoors, so be smart about the sun and go outside!

Rosanna Sutherby is a freelance medical writer who has been a practicing pharmacist in her community for close to 20 years. She obtained her Doctor of Pharmacy from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. She utilizes her clinical training in the pharmacy, where she helps patients manage disease states such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and many others. Dr. Sutherby reviews and recommends drug regimens based on patients’ concurrent conditions and potential drug interactions.


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