A great deal of confusion currently exists regarding the proper use and protection provided by sunscreens. In 2012, the FDA revised its labeling requirements in an attempt to alleviate some of the confusion.
Sunscreens must contain an active ingredient that stops UV radiation from reaching the skin.1 “Chemical” sunscreens contain an active ingredient that absorbs UV radiation, while “physical” sunscreens contain an active ingredient that blocks UV radiation. For maximum protection against sunburn and skin cancer, choose one with “broad spectrum” protection.
What Is the Best Sunscreen?
When purchasing a sunscreen, the best sunscreen blocks the entire spectrum of skin-damaging UV radiation (UV-A1, UV-A2, and UV-B). These ones are called “Broad Spectrum” sunscreens. (See UV Radiation). Unfortunately, most only protect against UV-B and UV-A2. In order to have UV-A1 protection, a chemical one must contain avobenzone, and a physical one must contain zinc oxide. Look specifically for the words “Broad Spectrum,” which denotes a sunscreen that protects against the entire UV spectrum.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF)
(SPF) is simply the amount of UV radiation required to produce a sunburn on protected skin relative to that of unprotected skin. It represents a sunscreen’s efficacy. However, SPF is completely unrelated to the duration of a its action. For example, SPF 15 blocks 94% of UV-B radiation while an equal amount of SPF 30 blocks 97%.
- The American Academy of Dermatology recommends daily use of a water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 regardless of age or skin.
- Sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours while in the sun and/or after extensive sweating, wiping of the skin, or exposure to water.
New FDA Sunscreen Guidelines1
The FDA has created new labeling standards and guidelines to (hopefully) reduce confusion. The changes are as follows:
- Sunscreens that protect against the entire UV spectrum (A1, A2, B) are to be labeled as “Broad Spectrum”. Look for these ones. They are simply the best.
- Broad spectrum sunscreens with SPF greater than or equal to 15 can now include the following statement: “If used as directed with other sun protection measures, decreases the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun.”
- Sunscreens that have SPF less than 15 or are not broad spectrum must have the following alert: “Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.” These products can only contain the statement, “This product has been shown only to prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
- Sunscreens CANNOT claim to be “sunblock,” “waterproof,” or “sweatproof.” They can only claim to be “Water Resistant (40 minutes)” or “Water Resistant (80 minutes)”.
- Sunscreens may now only claim to have a maximum SPF of 50+, due to a lack of evidence on the clinical benefits of higher SPFs.
EMG’s Skin and Aging Homepage: Ultraviolet UV Radiation
1. Jou PC, Feldman RJ, Tomecki KJ. UV protection and sunscreens: what to tell patients. Cleve Clin J Med. Jun 2012; 79 (6): 427-436.