What’s in your SPF? New sunscreen labels will tell you

June 7, 2013 | by

The importance of applying sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer has been drilled into the public for the past few decades. Yet studies have shown that skin cancer rates continue to climb, with melanoma diagnoses rising nearly 2 percent a year since 2000.

With summer just days away, it’s important to learn the new sunscreen regulations to help protect you and your family from sun-induced damage.

With summer just days away, it’s important to learn the new sunscreen regulations to help protect you and your family from sun-induced damage.

What are people doing wrong?

Skin cancer expert Vijay Trisal, M.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Surgical Oncology, said that consumers simply aren’t aware of what ingredients to look for in a sunscreen, much less how to decide which sunscreen or sunblock is best for them.

“Ingredients vary widely in products,” Trisal added. “People need to look for a sunscreen that contains at least one of the following: ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone or zinc oxide.”Such ingredients provide what’s known as broad-spectrum protection, reducing damage from both UVA and UVB rays. But the products themselves must be used properly. “Don't skimp,” advises this primer from WebMD. “A number of studies show that people simply don't use enough – and only get 10% to 25% of the benefit.”

Said Trisal: “Sunscreens also must be absorbed into the skin to be effective via a chemical reaction with the UV rays.”

To help consumers effectively protect themselves and their families from sun-induced damage, the Food and Drug Administration recently revised sunscreen regulations, establishing standards for testing their effectiveness and creating new rules for their labeling. Those new rules were supposed to take effect in 2012, but the newly labeled products are only now hitting store shelves. 

Under the new regulations, sunscreen products labeled “broad-spectrum protection” and “SPF 15” (or higher) must provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA). That kind of protection reduces the risk of all types of sun-induced skin damage, including skin cancer, early skin aging and sunburns.

Sunscreens not labeled as “broad spectrum” or that have an SPF value between 2 and 14, cannot make those claims. Because those products have been shown only to reduce the risk of sunburn, they must be labeled with a warning letting consumers know they don’t help prevent skin cancer or early skin aging.

Further, manufacturers can no longer claim that their products are “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” If a product claims to be water resistant, then the front label must specify how much time a user can expect to get protection while swimming or sweating.

Nor can sunscreens claim instant protection or protection for more than two hours without reapplication, unless the claim has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

As for sunscreens with a label of “SPF 50+”, the FDA notes that it does not have adequate data that show such products provide any additional protection compared to products with SPF values of 50.

“The SPF factor rates how effective the sunscreen is in preventing sunburn caused by UVB rays,” Trisal said. “If you'd normally burn in 10 minutes, SPF 15 multiplies that by a factor of 15, meaning you could go 150 minutes before burning. For the vast majority of people, SPF 15 is fine. People who have very fair skin, a family history of skin cancer or conditions like lupus that increase sensitivity to sunlight should consider SPF 30 or higher.”

When it comes to sprays, however, federal officials seem hesitant. “The FDA has banned sunscreen powders (though some products may still be available) and has asked for more data on sprays,” as a recent New York Times story notes. “The concern is twofold: that not enough sunscreen makes it onto the skin, and that the spray may be inhaled into the lungs.”

Overall, the new rules and the requests for more information are designed to help remedy consumer misperceptions about sunscreen products, allow them to effectively protect themselves from sun-induced damage and, maybe, drive down those melanoma rates

But sunscreen isn’t fail-proof. Common sense plays a role, too.


  • Jan

    How often should we replace a bottle of sunscreen? I bought my sunscreen last summer?.

    • http://www.cityofhope.org City of Hope

      Hi Jan, sunscreens will typically keep their strength for 3 years, so it's a good idea to replace it after that period of time. Have fun in the sun!