2011: Making sense of sunscreens

Charles Johnson, M.D.

Charles Johnson, M.D.

After 35 years of proposing various regulations for the manufacturers of sunscreens, the FDA has finally issued new labeling rules which will take effect by the summer of 2012.

Sunscreens have long been rated for their protection against the burning rays of the sun, known as UVB, or Ultraviolet B rays. Most people are familiar with this rating system, known as the “SPF”, or “Sun Protection Factor”. The higher the SPF, the longer one can spend in the sun before sunburn develops.

What has been lacking in sunscreen labeling is a rating system for UVA, or Ultraviolet A, protection. UVA has much less potential to cause burning, and thus does not factor into the SPF rating.

UVA rays do age the skin by damaging collagen and elastic fibers in deeper skin levels, and like UVB rays, are linked to skin cancer. Most sunscreen manufacturers have been adding UVA blocking agents to their sunscreens for the last 15-20 years, and label their products as a “broad spectrum” sunscreen.

However, in the absence of testing and labeling for the degree of UVA protection, the consumer is left only to guess as to just how “broad” that broad spectrum claim extends.

How will the new labeling rules work? A manufacturer will be able to label a sunscreen as “broad spectrum” if the degree of UVB and UVA coverage is commensurate.

So, the higher the SPF, the higher must be the UVA coverage as well. If the SPF is 15 or greater they may also claim the sunscreen reduces skin cancer and skin aging risk.

The labeling for waterproof and sweat proof will disappear, as these concepts are invalid and misleading, and a water resistant label can be added if there is evidence of testing for this. Not yet determined is whether the SPF rating will be capped at “50,” as there is little evidence of additional sunburn protection above this level.

How to choose a sunscreen before 2012? Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are among the most reliable broad spectrum agents currently available. These are well studied, safe, natural minerals that cover the full spectrum of UVB and UVA rays. If the sunscreen has one of these agents, you are more likely to be well protected. Most dermatologists recommend a SPF of at least 15, and reapplying sunscreen for extended sun exposure, sweating, and swimming.

We live in a wonderful and sunny state, however, we have the second highest skin cancer rates in the world. So, cover up, wear a hat, and put on sunscreen before you head outside to enjoy our great weather.

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