Until now, a product’s SPF (sun protection factor) was the only objective measure of its ability to protect against sunburn. SPF does not, however, provide any measure of protection against developing skin cancer, or of premature aging caused by the sun’s rays known as photoaging. Sun damage is caused by two types of radiation: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). UVB is important in causing sunburn. SPF is therefore a measure of how well a sunscreen product protects against UVB and sunburn.
UVA – along with UVB – can cause skin cancer and premature sun aging. To date, sunscreens haven’t always protected against UVA and therefore haven’t always protected against skin cancer and aging. Although people who don’t burn in the sun are less prone to premature photoaging, everyone – regardless of skin color – can get skin cancer.
New federally-mandated labeling laws for sunscreens will hopefully help Americans make better choices when it comes to sunscreen. The new FDA labels divide sunscreens into two kinds:
• Those that ONLY help prevent sunburn, and
• Those that help prevent sunburn, skin cancer and photoaging
Labels on the first kind will warn that the products have been shown to protect ONLY against sunburn and will include explicit warnings that the product does not protect against skin cancer or skin aging. Labels on the second kind will say the products are “BROAD SPECTRUM” and will state clearly that the products offer both types of protection. Products with this label must pass testing requirements to prove they meet the standard definition of “broad spectrum” and have an SPF value of 15 or higher.
The new FDA regulations ban claims that a product is “waterproof” or “sweat proof” or acts as a “sunblock.” Products may claim, however, that a product is water resistant, but for only a specified time: either 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
Products are also banned from labels claiming “instant protection” (for chemical sunscreens) or claiming they keep working more than two hours after you apply them.
High SPF values, as well as terms like “waterproof” and “sunblock,” can give you a false sense of security that you can stay in the sun longer than you really should, leading to an increased risk of skin cancer later in life. While SPF 100 sunscreen can delay burning twice as long as an SPF 50 sunscreen, the difference between how much UVB they block is minimal: 99% for the SPF 100 versus 98% for the SPF 50. SPF 30 blocks 96.7%. The FDA has also proposed, but not yet instituted, a regulation requiring SPF values to max out at 50. Any sunscreens above that would be labeled as “SPF 50+.” The American Academy of Dermatology considers the SPF 15 minimum too low and would prefer SPF 30.
Even the best sunscreen can’t protect you unless you use it correctly. That means use plenty of it and plenty often! As a rule of thumb, “plenty” means a blob the size of a golf ball or shot glass, and “often” means reapplying every two hours – more frequently if you sweat a lot.
So, what kind of sunscreen should you consider buying?
There are two main types of sunscreens: physical (mineral) and chemical. Physical screens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) work by deflecting UV rays, while chemical screens work by absorbing them (instead of your skin doing so). Physical sunscreens are inert and natural elements, work right away, and have no potentially harmful chemicals. The trouble with physical screens, is mostly that people don’t like the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” look. Sunscreen makers have solved that problem by using micronized versions of the minerals.
Among chemical sunscreens, Avobenzone is used for UVA protection. It degrades in sunlight, though, so it has to be combined with other agents to be effective. Oxybenzone is used for UVB protection. Both absorb invisibly into the skin.
Concerns have been raised about the safety of oxybenzones, and chemical sunscreens in general, which is why some skin experts argue the best protection is to focus on sun-protective clothing. Wearing a broad brimmed hat and UPF 50+ sun protective clothing is becoming an increasingly popular way to help you and your family stay safe in the sun, and minimizing the body surface area that requires sunscreen. There are many websites designed specifically for sun protective clothing and large retail stores like Target and Walmart carry UPF 50+ hats and clothing.
Whichever sun protection method suits you best, make sure that you stay safe in the sun while enjoying those favorite summertime activities!