Harvard Health Letter

What to look for in sunscreen:

Understanding the new rules for sunscreen labels.

Confused by new labels popping up on sunscreen bottles? This year, changes to sunscreen labels are finally showing up on store shelves, as ordered by the FDA.

One big change: terminology. Sunblock must now be called sunscreen, and the terms "sweat proof" and "waterproof" aren't allowed. The FDA says those labels weren't accurate, so a sunscreen can only be called "water resistant" for either 40 or 80 minutes, and only if it passes an FDA test.

But the more important terms focus on what sunscreen can prevent. For a label to claim the sunscreen can prevent sunburn, the product must pass the sun protection factor (SPF) test. This test shows how long a sunscreen protects you from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that cause sunburn. SPF levels range from 2 to more than 70. The higher the number, the longer the protection lasts. For a product to claim it can prevent skin cancer, it must pass the broad-spectrum test. This shows if a sunscreen can protect your skin from both ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which contributes to skin cancer and early skin aging, and UVB rays.

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