When it comes to buying sunscreen this summer, it’s all about the label.
That’s because is the first summer that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s new labeling requirements are finally in effect, and with skin cancer rates on the rise, taking the time to figure out the new labels may not be such a bad idea.
“Dermatologists get geeky-happy about this kind of government regulation. It’s a game changer because products have to state how much protection they will give you, and be scientifically tested to back up those claims,” says dermatologist Ellen Marmur of Marmur Medical in NYC, in an interview with NY Magazine. “Skin cancer blows away all other cancers combined, and it’s the most common cancer in the U.S., so this clear-cut labeling is amazingly important for consumers.”
The new guidelines affect products that carry an SPF number, including not only sunscreen, but also makeup, moisturizer, and lip balm.
So, what new labeling regulations have been implemented?
“Broad Spectrum” label now means business. Manufaturers can’t just throw out the words “broad spectrum” on the label like they used to, as the new rules will make it clear to consumers whether suncreens are indeed “broad spectrum,” (which means they meet the criteria for providing UVA to UVB protection).
Quick science lesson: sunlight is actually composed of both ultraviolet-A (UVA) and ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation. While UVB radiation contributes to sun burn, UVB radiation actually offers a greater risk for skin cancer.
If a sunscreen does not meet the criteria for blocking both of the UV rays, it will be labeled with a strict warning that reads: “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 help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
“This is the most important thing to check,” Marmur says. “It means the product has been tested and proven to protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. If a label specifies the SPF (even if it’s a high number) but doesn’t say “broad spectrum” then it’s not necessarily screening your skin from the longer UVA wavelengths.”
“Water resistant” to replace “waterproof.” Manufacturers will no longer be allowed to label products as “waterproof,” because such a concept doesn’t exist. All “waterproof” sunscreens are actually “water resistant,” and must be labeled as such. Also, if a label claims to be water resistant, it must specify whether it takes 40 minutes or 80 minutes before the sunscreen is ineffective.
No over-promising. Sunscreen manufacturers are no longer allowed to claim instant protection (most products have to be applied about a half hour before sun exposure) and labels may not claim protection for more than 2 hours without reapplying. Also, the term “sunblock” is banned from being used on labels.
The SPF Number. Sunscreens with an SPF lower than 15 must now include the same warning used for non-broad spectrum sunscreen. Little known fact: ever wonder what SPF stands for? It represents sun protection factor, which means the minimum amount of time that it takes for protected skin to burn as opposed to unprotected skin. Products with higher SPF values provide greater protection from UVB radiation, which is considered more carcinogenic than UVA.
As Marmur tells NY Magazine, “That cocoa tanning oil SPF 8 now has to carry a caution sticker, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. If you don’t get the message that this product isn’t good protection, then you’re obviously not reading the label.”
The SPF 50+ Debate. Manufacturers can still sell sunscreens with SPFs that exceed 50, though FDA officials are close to taking them off the shelves as well. It’s not clear that they are more effective, and in the mean time the label is deceiving to sunbathers because they chose not to apply them as frequently. For now, the higher numbers stay on the label, but bare in mind that the math doesn’t add up. “While SPF 15 screens up to 95 percent of UVB rays, an SPF 30 filters 97 percent. And most people don’t put on nearly the cake-frosting amount of sunscreen that’s used to test the SPF, ” Marmur tells NY Magazine.
In other words, in order to be effective your daily sunscreen should be provide between SPF 30 and 50 protection.
For more information on how to protect yourself from the summer sun, visit FDA.org.