In 2011, the FDA issued its long-awaited “Final Rules” for sunscreen labeling, to help consumers identify sunscreens offering high-quality protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These rules went into effect in December 2012, and this year marks the first summer they are in effect for all major US manufacturers.
These guidelines firmly establish what effective, “broad-spectrum” protection means. Once, only the SPF (sun protection factor) number—a measure of protection solely against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays—was considered important enough to include on labels. However, as research uncovered the significant role that ultraviolet A (UVA) rays play in skin cancer and skin aging, manufacturers began emphasizing the term “broad-spectrum” to indicate that a sunscreen offered both UVA and UVB protection. Unfortunately, with no oversight, sunscreens could be labeled “broad-spectrum” even if the UVA or UVB protection wasn’t adequate.
With the new FDA rules, only sunscreens with an SPF of 15+ and comparable UVA protection may be considered effective broad-spectrum products; these sunscreens can state on labels or in packaging: “If used as directed with other sun protection measures, [this product] decreases the risk of skin cancer and early signs of aging caused by the sun.” Sunscreens that do not adequately protect against both UVA and UVB radiation, and/or have an SPF of less than 15, will have to state that they “have been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
This summer, when you shop for sunscreen, look for the new FDA labeling. You should also look for The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation, found on close to 450 different sunscreens worldwide. Granted only to products that have been reviewed by and meet the criteria of an independent Photobiology Committee, the Seal is a respected symbol of safe and effective sun protection. The Foundation now has two different protection categories for the Seal: “Daily Use,” requiring broad-spectrum, SPF 15+ protection, meant to defend against brief incidental sun exposures such as running errands or walking the dog; and “Active,” calling for broad-spectrum, water resistant, SPF 30+ protection, designed for sunscreens intended to shield against the kind of extended or intense exposure you might experience at a picnic or engaging in sports. Combined with the new FDA labeling, the new Seal makes it easier than ever for consumers to choose the right sunscreen for their needs.
Whatever sunscreen you choose, you have to apply it properly to ensure adequate protection. We recommend that you apply sunscreen liberally to all exposed skin 30 minutes before heading outside, and reapply after two hours outdoors, or immediately after swimming or sweating heavily. You should also remember that sunscreen is just one essential part of a complete sun protection program, along with seeking shade between 10 AM and 4 PM; avoiding UV tanning; and wearing sun-protective clothing, including UV-blocking sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat. If you are diligent about sun safety in this way, you will keep your skin healthy and youthful.