Confused About Sunscreens? You’re Not Alone

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June 23, 2015


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Summer is here, and warm-weather safety concerns are front and center — especially given the recent spike in skin cancer rates. But with more than 1,500 sunscreen products on the market, most shoppers are confused about which ones offer the best protection from harmful ultraviolet sun rays, according to a new study from Northwestern University.

Only 39 percent of consumers shop for sunscreen products that offer “broad spectrum protection” from dangerous ultraviolet rays that are linked to skin cancer, the study shows. Study results were published this summer in the latest issue of Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)-Dermatology.

Broad Spectrum, Broad Protections

A broad spectrum label on a sunscreen  indicates that the product — when used properly — will protect you from the effects of ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, says Alysa Herman, M.D., a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon affiliated with South Miami, Baptist and Doctors Hospitals. UVA rays are linked to premature aging and UVB rays are associated with sunburns — and exposure to both is linked to a higher risk of developing skin cancer.

But too few people purchase sunscreens based on the availability of broad spectrum protection, the Northwestern study says. Most shoppers focus on other product features or promises. About 115 people participated in the Northwestern Survey, which was conducted during the summer of 2014. Participants were asked about their purchasing habits and their comprehension of sunscreen labels.  Here are some of the factors that influenced purchases of sunscreens, according to the Northwestern research project. Buyers seek:

  • High sun protection factor (SPF) – 49 percent.
  • Formula for sensitive skin – 47 percent.
  • Water and sweat resistance – 43 percent.
  • Broad-spectrum designation -39 percent.
New Sunscreen Regulations

Under the the latest regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), manufacturers must clearly identify which sunscreens reduce the risk of skin cancer and early aging of the skin, while also preventing sunburns. The new guidelines were announced in 2011, and sunscreen manufacturers were given until year-end 2012 to make the label changes.

“Despite the recent changes in labeling mandated by the US Food and Drug Administration, this survey study suggests that the terminology on sunscreen labels may still be confusing to consumers,” according to the study’s authors. “There is an ongoing need for physicians to educate their patients about the need for protection against both UV-A and UV-B radiation in preventing skin cancer and sunburns.”

To make it still easier to shop for the best sun protection, the American Academy of Dermatologists offers three quick tips:

  • Look for labels that advertise “broad-spectrum protection.”
  • Select products that offer a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
  • Choose “water-resistant” sunscreens that advertise coverage between 40-80 minutes—after which you should reapply the product.

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