Before You Buy Sunscreen, Read This

After decades of debate, the FDA adopted new rules last year that are changing the way sunscreens are tested and labeled; you’ll start to see the fruits of the legislation on shelves this summer. (There are two exceptions: Small brands with annual sales under $25,000 have until June 2013 to implement the changes. And although the FDA expects manufacturers to follow these labeling and testing requirements by mid-June 2012, “products manu-factured and distributed prior to this date may remain on some store shelves,” says FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess.) So how can you use the new information to your advantage? Heed these tips.

By Michele Bender
serge bloch
Serge Bloch
Photograph: Serge Bloch


Although SPF has always meant “sun protection factor,” it used to measure only your sunburn protection. And the number after the initials? It indicated the amount of time you could be in the sun before your skin turned pink (for example, SPF 15 would allow you to stay outdoors without burning 15 times as long as you could unprotected; SPF 30 would enable you to stay out 30 times as long, etc.). Under the new rules, however, if a label says “broad spectrum,” the meaning of SPF gets expanded: In addition to measuring protection against UVB rays (those that burn), SPF now also indicates protection against UVA rays (those that cause skin cancer and accelerate skin aging). “In short, on labels that say ‘broad spectrum,’ the higher the SPF, the higher the protection against both UVB and UVA rays,” says Arielle Kauvar, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine. 



This phrase has always meant that a product protects against both UVB and UVA rays. But previously, when it came to sunscreen labeling, there was a loophole. “A company could put just a tiny bit of a UVA-blocking ingredient—like zinc oxide or avobenzone—into its product and claim it was broad spectrum,” says Katie Rodan, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Stanford University. Such disingenuous practices meant consumers were buying a product they assumed provided adequate UVA blockage when it didn’t. Now, however, all sun-screens must pass a regulated broad-spectrum test to ensure that a minimum level of UVA protection is provided before a manufacturer can put the claim on its label.

3. LOW SPFS ARE GETTING DEMOTED (and rightfully so).

IF a product has an SPF of 15 or greater and bears the term broad spectrum, the label will specifically say, “Reduces the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.” However, sunscreens with an SPF of 14 or lower—even if they say they’re broad-spectrum—cannot include this anti-cancer, anti-aging language, because the FDA has determined that SPFs below 15 do not provide an adequate level of UVA-blocking protection.


“There was never really any such thing as a ‘waterproof’ sunscreen, since all sunscreens eventually come off in the water or when you’re perspiring,” explains Rodan. New labeling is simply more honest. A company can claim that its product is only water-resistant, and the label will note that you must reapply every 40 minutes or 80 minutes, depending on the formula.


THE FDA says there is little scientific evidence that SPFs above 50 provide a substantial uptick in your level of protection, and statistics from the American Cancer Society bear this out: SPF 15 filters out about 93 percent of UV rays; SPF 50, 98 percent—and SPF 100, 99 percent. So the jump from 0 to 50 is 98 percent, while the increase from 51 to 100 is just one percent. As a result, the FDA has proposed capping all SPFs at 50+. However, the cap is not yet a law, so some manufacturers are not com-plying. Regardless, whether you have SPF 50 or 80, be sure to reapply every two hours. And remember, quantity counts: Head to toe, use enough lotion to fill a shot glass; for foam, make the squirt the size of a tennis ball. 


Click here to read how MORE's EIC tackled her sun damage


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First Published Mon, 2012-04-23 11:50

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