Understanding Sunscreen Labels

f70ca92d-8af8-11e1-a663-0017a4aa266a  Effective by the summer of 2012, the FDA has released new regulations for over-the-counter sunscreen products (including cosmetics and moisturizers with SPF protection). These changes were made, in part, to help consumers better understand the degrees of protection provided by various products. So, what do you need to know to enjoy the summer sun without putting your skin in danger?

  • Protect yourself against both UVA and UVB radiation. All sunscreens currently protect against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which is responsible for sunburns. However, ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation can be equally dangerous. UVA exposure has been shown to cause skin cancer, as well as premature aging.
  • Look for “Broad Spectrum” products. The new regulations seek to increase protection against UVA radiation. They require that sunscreen products that provide equal protection against UVA and UVB radiation be specifically labeled as “Broad Spectrum”. Broad Spectrum products with an SPF of 15 or higher reduce the risk of skin cancer, aging, and sunburn.
  • The higher the SPF, the better. SPF levels indicate the amount of protection against sunburn provided. Because sunburn is caused by UVB radiation, SPF levels do not indicate the amount of protection against UVA radiation. Higher SPF numbers (up to SPF 50) equal more protection from UVB radiation and sunburn. There is not enough evidence to show that products with a SPF level higher than 50 provide more protection than sunscreens with SPF 50.
  • There’s no such thing as “water-proof.” Sunscreen products can no longer claim to be “water-proof” or “sweat-proof.” Instead, they can only be labeled as “water-resistant,” and must state whether they are water/sweat-resistant for up to 40 or up to 80 minutes. Reapplication instructions must be provided.
  • Avoid vitamin A. A form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate that is sometimes found in sunscreen may speed the development of tumors when applied to skin exposed to sunlight. Avoid sunscreens that use vitamin A by looking for the words "retinyl palmitate" on the label.
  • Reduce your risk. In addition to wearing Broad Spectrum SPF 15 or higher sunscreen, keep yourself safe by limiting your sun exposure (either by staying out of direct sunlight or covering exposed skin while in the sun) and reapplying frequently.

Environmental Working Group. Sunscreens Exposed: Nine Surprising Truths.http://breakingnews.ewg.org/2012sunscreen/sunscreens-exposed/sunscreens-exposed-9-surprising-truths/ (Accessed 8/9/12).

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Sunscreen. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm239463.htm. (Accessed 4/12).

Reviewed by Susan Weiner, RD, MS, CDE, CDN. 8/12

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Last Modified Date: November 28, 2012

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