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New sunscreen labels offer clearer sunburn, skin cancer information
- By Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
With the unofficial start of summer just a few days away, many people will soon be stocking up on sunscreen. The products they’ll be seeing in stores look different than they have in the past. That’s because new rules for sunscreen labels are now in effect. The changes are good ones for consumers.
The new rules, mandated by the FDA, are making sunscreen more informative with less misleading information. For example, the term “sunblock” is banned because none of these products can block all of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. “Waterproof” is also banned, replaced by “water-resistant”—which must be accompanied by a set time for reapplication. Another big change has to do with SPF, or sun protection factor.
When sunlight hits your skin, it is being exposed to ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn, while UVA can prematurely age and wrinkle skin. Both contribute to skin cancer. Sunscreens vary in their ability to protect against UVA and UVB.
The best protection comes from a sunscreen that provides broad spectrum protection, meaning it filters out much of the UVA and UVB. Under the new FDA rules, if a label says “broad spectrum,” the product must pass tests proving that it truly protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
SPF is a measurement of how much longer it takes for your skin to turn red from the sun after applying the sunscreen. Say your skin turns red after 10 minutes in the sun. Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would prevent your skin from turning red for 150 minutes under the same conditions. You’d think that an SPF of 30 would work twice as well as an SPF of 15. But that’s not necessarily the case. While SPF 15 filters out approximately 93% of all incoming UVB rays, SPF 30 filters out 97% and SPF 50 boosts that to 98%.
Sunscreen products that don’t meet an SPF of 15 or higher for both UVA and UVB must now carry a warning like this: Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.
The FDA says there’s no evidence that sunscreens with an SPF above 50 offer any additional protection. It had initially wanted to ban sunscreen makers from including SPFs higher than 50 on labels, but blowback from the industry has so far tabled that.
To reduce your risk of skin cancer and early aging, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with the following features listed on the label:
- “Broad spectrum,” which means the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays
- SPF of 30 or higher
- Water-resistant for up to 40 or 80 minutes
Wise sunscreen use
Nonchalantly slapping on some sunscreen here and there will miss spots and often provide insufficient protection against sunburn and skin cancer. Be systematic when using sunscreen:
- Apply it before you go out.
- Make sure you apply enough and apply frequently. Use 1 ounce of sunscreen (a shot glass full) to cover your body and face.
- Reapply sunscreen immediately after swimming or heavy sweating, using the time guide on the label.
- Apply every 2 hours if you don’t get in the water and don’t sweat.
Even the best sunscreen can’t protect you from all of the sun’s rays. Here are some other ways to protect yourself from skin cancer, sunburn, and early aging of skin:
- Wear clothing made from tightly woven fabrics or those that absorb UVA and UVB.
- Avoid the sun from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., when its rays are most intense.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat to keep ultraviolet rays off your face.
- Stay in the shade.
- Pay attention to reflection from water, sand, and snow (in the winter).
- Watch for news reports that give the UV index in your area. A UV index reading of 2 or less means low danger from the sun’s ultraviolet rays for the average person.
- Examine your skin regularly for any new moles or changes in moles. Ask your doctor about any changes you see.
About the Author
Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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