Decoding Sunscreen Labels

Confused by all those sunscreen tubes and bottles (at least 1,400 products) on the market? Thanks to new federal laws, shopping for sunscreen should get easier.

Under new 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 are designed to eliminate misleading sunscreen claims that could cause a false sense of security when you’re outdoors, according to Alysa Herman, M.D., a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon affiliated with South Miami, Baptist and Doctors Hospitals.

Products that reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, premature aging and sunburns will be labeled “broad spectrum,” and must be subjected to FDA tests to verify that claim.  A broad spectrum label indicates that the product—when used properly—will protect you from the effects of ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.

What’s more, the FDA has banned the terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” from sunscreen labels. Instead, look for the phrase “water-resistant,” which is a more accurate description of what happens when you’re in the water or perspiring outdoors, according to the FDA.

Sunscreens that are not broad spectrum or that are broad spectrum with SPF values from 2 to 14 will now be labeled with a 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 only been shown to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early aging.”

Likewise, sunscreens that do not meet FDA standards for water-resistance must carry warning labels that spell out the limitations of the product.

More changes are in the works. The FDA is debating whether to limit SPF numerical claims and make “SPF 50 +” the highest permitted ranking. The reason is simple. There is not enough data to support the notion that SPF ratings above 50 provide more protection than SPF 50 products.

The FDA is also evaluating the effectiveness of different types of sunscreen delivery products, according to Dr. Herman. For example, while sunscreen spray products are convenient and easy to apply, the FDA will be looking into whether those products deliver a sufficient dose of sunscreen to meet their SPF/sun protection claims. There is also concern that aerosol products could present a safety concern if inhaled unintentionally.

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.

“Standardized package labels will make it easier for the consumer to know what they’re buying,” said pediatric dermatologist Ana Duarte, M.D. “Consumers can more accurately and easily select the correct sunscreen.”

Here’s the rest of Health, Life & Community’s series on sun protection:

Skin Cancer Does Not Discriminate

Understanding Melanoma

Melanoma: Learn Your ABCDs

4 Ways to Protect Your Skin

Busting the Top 5 Skin Cancer Myths

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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