Important changes you should know about…

If you’re like most Americans, you think that the best way to prevent skin cancer is to put on sunscreen—and the higher the product’s sun protection factor (SPF), the better. But both of these beliefs are false.

Shade and/or protective clothing provide better protection than sunscreen, and a super-high SPF doesn’t necessarily work better than a lower-SPF product. Misconceptions about how protective sunscreens are can be dangerous because they lead people to spend too much time in the sun and increase their risk for skin cancer.

Latest development: To clarify for consumers what sunscreen can—and cannot—do, the FDA issued new labeling regulations to take effect this June (the deadline was later extended to December 2012). The changes are crucial to understand so that you can get the greatest level of protection from sunscreen products.

WHY IT MATTERS

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunshine causes 90% of all skin cancers as well as photoaging—premature wrinkling, texture changes and age spots.

Sunscreen can play a role in helping to prevent these cancers and skin damage, but some manufacturers have hyped their products with vague—and sometimes misleading—claims on the labels.

Five important ways sunscreen labels are changing…

WHAT’S NEW: Requirements added for “broad spectrum” protection. For years, health authorities have advised us to use a “broad spectrum” sunscreen—that is, one that guards against UVA and UVB radiation (both can cause sunburn and skin cancer). What most people didn’t realize is that manufacturers were allowed to use the term “broad spectrum” even if a product contained such a small amount of UVA-blocking ingredient that it didn’t really do any good.

Specific change: Under the new guidelines, sunscreen must absorb significant amounts of UVA energy (and UVB energy) to be labeled “broad spectrum.”

Manufacturers will still be allowed to produce sunscreens that mainly block UVB radiation while providing little protection against UVA rays. However, under the new guidelines, these products cannot be labeled “broad spectrum” as they have been in the past—nor even use the term “UVA” on the labels.

My advice: Opt for a product that is labeled “broad spectrum,” which must now offer laboratory-tested protection against both types of UV radiation.

WHAT’S NEW: SPF more clearly defined. In the past, many people assumed that any level of SPF found in a sunscreen product provides some degree of protection against skin cancer. But that’s not true.

SPF is actually no more than a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to protect the skin from reddening. For example, suppose it normally takes 20 minutes for your skin to turn red in the sun. If you use an SPF 15 sunscreen, you might not turn red for five hours—15 times longer. But not all SPF levels have been found to reduce skin cancer risk.

Specific change: Under the new guidelines, products with an SPF lower than 15 (or not broad spectrum) will be required to have a label warning that the product has not been shown to prevent skin cancer. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher can state on the label that the product decreases the risk for skin cancer and premature skin damage. Important caveat: An SPF 30 sunscreen does not provide twice as much protection as an SPF 15 sunscreen. While an SPF 15 sunscreen will block about 93% of the sun’s UVB rays, an SPF 30 product provides only a small additional benefit by blocking 97% of UVB radiation.

My advice: Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50. Consumers may be lulled into a false sense of security with products that have an SPF above 50 and be tempted to stay in the sun for longer periods or be less diligent about seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, etc.

WHAT’S NEW: “Use as directed” spelled out. Because sunscreens are considered a drug in the US, these products must carry a “Drug Facts” box on the label.

Specific change: New sunscreen labels state that you’ll be protected only if you use the product “as directed.”

My advice: To use sunscreen “as directed,” you should…

  • Use at least one ounce for each application to your whole body. This is about the amount that would fill a shot glass. (Most people apply only one-quarter to one-half of this amount.)
  • Apply it 15 minutes prior to sun exposure. This allows the ingredients to fully bind to the skin.
  • Reapply it at least every two hours if you’re dry. Reapply it more often (see below) if you’re swimming or sweating heavily.
  • Not depend on sunscreen alone. At times, you should also avoid the sun—for example, by wearing a broad-brimmed hat, spending time in the shade, etc.

WHAT’S NEW: “Waterproof” claims no longer allowed. In the past, many sunscreen products carried claims such as “waterproof” or “sweatproof” on the labels.

Specific change: Because there is no such thing as a truly waterproof or sweatproof sunscreen, new labels will more accurately specify that a product is “water resistant” for a certain length of time—for example, 40 minutes or 80 minutes, depending on the product. After that time, you need to apply more sunscreen.

My advice: Use a water-resistant sunscreen if you’re swimming, spending the day on the beach, etc. For day-to-day use, such as walking to work, you can forgo the added cost of a water-resistant sunscreen.

WHAT’S NEW: Only certain sunscreen products are regulated. Even though many types of products contain sunscreen, including sprays, wipes, towelettes, body washes and shampoos, the new regulations apply only to sunscreens in the forms of lotions, oils, creams, gels, butters, pastes, balms and ointments.

My advice: Use only sunscreens that are covered by the new regulations. Manufacturers often add sunscreen ingredients to products such as shampoos and body washes, but it doesn’t make sense to use a sunscreen that’s mostly washed off. Sprays and makeup with sunscreen do provide some protection because they stay on the skin.