Courtesy FDA

Sunscreen labels are changing for the better...learn what the differences mean to you. Photo courtesy FDA.

Question: “I read about some new sunscreen labeling rules in a magazine but I don’t really know how they apply to me when I’m standing in the store aisle trying to choose sunscreen! Can you help?”

Answer:  Of course! These new FDA sunscreen label requirements are meant to clear up confusion about exactly what type of protection a sunscreen provides. There are some new terms you will see on sunscreen bottles starting this summer (although brands have until December 2012 to comply) that will help you make a more informed choice.

  • “Broad Spectrum”  This designation means the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB sunlight rays, and will distinguish sunscreens from those that only protect against UVB. To earn the designation, brands now need to pass the FDA’s broad spectrum test to claim they are, in fact, broad spectrum. Furthermore, only those labeled “broad spectrum” with an SPF of 15 of higher can claim that they protect against sunburn caused by UVB rays but also decrease skin cancer risk and protect against skin aging caused by UVA rays.
  • “FDA Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert”  For sunscreens with SPF values below 15 or those that are not broad spectrum (because they only protect against UVB rays), you will see the following new FDA 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.

  • “Water-Resistant”  This tells users exactly how much time they can expect to get the declared SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating, based on new standard testing. Labels will specify 40  or 80 minutes. If this term with a time limit is not on the label, the product is not water-resistant.
  • “Drug Facts”  Information such as active ingredients, usage, warnings and directions will now appear in the drug facts chart , like the one above, so you can see it at-a-glance and choose accordingly.

The following terms have been banned from labeling because they are misleading and inaccurate, according to the FDA:

  • Waterpoof
  • Sweatproof
  • Sunblock
  • Instant Protection

The biggest mistake you can make, no matter what sunscreen you choose, is not applying enough of it and not re-applying it. The general guideline is to apply a shot glass worth (about 1 ounce) to your body, but studies have shown that most people are applying only one-quarter of that amount! And, no matter what the SPF, no sunscreen protection lasts beyond two hours, so to protect skin fully, that same one ounce should be re-applied every two hours when spending the day outdoors in the sun.

I think sunscreen and skin cancer protection is really a year-round concern and sunscreen should be worn on areas exposed to the sun such as arms, neck and face every day, even if cold or cloudy. Have you seen that recent photo of the truck driver whose left side of his face looks dramatically older than the right side of his face? That’s proof of the sun’s aging power and the case was studied  by Jennifer R.S. Gordon and Joaquin C. Brieva, dermatologists at Northwestern University, with findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Tell the truth:  Do you wear enough sunscreen? Will you change how you choose and apply sunscreen this summer?