July 17, 2013

Decoding the new sunscreen labels.

And how they can better help protect your family from the sun’s rays.

As you stock up on sunscreen for the summer, have you noticed that the sunscreen bottles look a little different this year? That’s because starting this year, the FDA requires that companies be transparent about what’s actually in the bottle, and what kind of protection the sunscreen provides. And as skin cancer remains the most common cancer in the U.S., this new, clear-cut labeling will help consumers make more informed choices that will help better protect themselves against potential sun damage.

The old vs. the new

So, what’s the difference between the previous sunscreen requirements and the new, updated requirements? The old sunscreen rules focused almost entirely on sunburn prevention, which is primarily caused by ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun. However, these rules overlooked the importance of providing protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which contributes to skin cancer and early skin aging. After reviewing the scientific testing abilities of sunscreens, the FDA concluded that it was important to establish a “broad spectrum” test – a test that would show that the product provides UVA protection that is proportional to it’s UVB protection. This new test would allow for an even greater opportunity to protect individuals from sunburn and sun damage.

What exactly should I be looking for on the new labels?

It’s often easy to overlook the details on product packaging, as long as the packaging looks appealing to the eye. However, there are a few details you should take note of when purchasing a new bottle of sunscreen.

Broad Spectrum. This new label ensures that the product has been tested for protection from both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that have a Broad Spectrum SPF value higher than 15, provides greater coverage than those that don’t. However, products with an SPF value higher than 50 have shown little scientific evidence that they provide even more coverage than those that are Broad Spectrum SPF 50. So, just because the number may be higher, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are getting more protection.

New “-resistant” labeling and time limits. Previously, sunscreen products could use claims such as “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” or “sunblock.” However, there is no sunscreen product that has actually been proven to block the sun, and all sunscreens eventually wear or rinse off. With the new requirements, sunscreens are now labeled as “water-resistant,” and must give a time limit of how long the SPF protection lasts while swimming, or sweating. Typically, there will either be a 40 or 80-minute time limit, based on standard testing.

Use claims. Only sunscreens that are labeled as “Broad Spectrum SPF 15” or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed, and with other sun protection measures. Sunscreens that are non-Broad Spectrum or have a Broad Spectrum SPF value between 2 and 14 can only claim to help prevent sunburn. These products are also required to include a warning sign, acknowledging that it does not help protect against skin cancer or early skin aging.

Drug facts. Sunscreen products are now required to list the percentage of active ingredients, such as minerals like zinc oxide and titanium oxide, or chemicals such as avobenzone or octinoxate, and their potency, on the back, or side, of the container.

Even if you are using sunscreen that is Broad Spectrum SPF 50+, there are still additional measures of sun protection you should take to help decrease your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Here are the additional recommendations encouraged by the FDA:

  • Limit your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
  • Wear clothing to cover skin that is exposed to the sun, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, hat and sunglasses, when possible.
  • Use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, and more often if swimming or sweating.
  • For children under the age of 6 months, ask a doctor before applying sunscreen.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally. Most people do not apply enough sunscreen, which can cause undesirable sunburns and tanning. A good rule of thumbs is to apply the equivalent of one shot glass, or two tablespoons, to the exposed areas of the body and face, and a nickel-size amount to the face alone. This will ensure that your skin is adequately protected from the sun and help prevent potential damage.

Some of my favorite childhood memories are those days spent outside in the sun, or on the sandy beach building sand castles. These new requirements put in place by the FDA are not meant to deprive your family of such memories, but to better protect you and your kids from sunburn, skin cancer, and early skin aging. And remember, most sun damage occurs at a young age, which is why it’s important to educate yourself on sun safety to help keep your family healthy.

To read more about sun safety, check out:

Healthy skin habits: Dr. Davis explains why it’s important to teach kids at an early age

Teaching your kids about sun safety

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