Confusion about how much protection your sunscreen provides is widespread, but the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday took steps to make product labels more transparent in the information they provide starting in 2012. There is much misunderstanding about what SPF really means and what rays do sunscreens really block.
The fact is that sunscreens don’t “block” the sun’s rays. This is why the term “sunblock” will no longer be allowed on product labels under the new rules. Additionally, the labeling of an SPF greater than 50 will not be allowed because there is no evidence of additional sun protection beyond SPF 50. SPF or Sun Protection Factor is a measure of how much ultra-violet (UV) radiation is required to produce sunburn on protected skin versus unprotected skin. The higher the number the greater the protection.
The myth about SPF is that it measures the time of sun exposure. In fact it measures the amount of sun exposure which can vary due to time of day, latitude, altitude, skin type and so forth. SPF only gives you a relative comparison of protection between products.
With the new labeling requirements, the F.D.A. hopes to clear up misconceptions like these among consumers. Skin can be damaged by two types of solar rays, ultra-violet A (UVA) and ultra-violet B (UVB). Some products can screen one type of ray but not the other. Under the new rules, products that block both UVA and UVB rays will carry the designation “Broad Spectrum” along with the SPF rating number. Products that are not Broad Spectrum, or are Broad Spectrum and have an SPF rating below 15 will be required to carry a warning “stating that the product has not been shown to help prevent skin cancer or early skin aging”.
In addition to eliminating the term “sunblock”, the terms “waterproof” and “sweat proof” will also be eliminated because they overstate the effectiveness of the product and no sunscreen on the market is waterproof. The new rules allow for the term “Water Resistant” along with the number of minutes that the product has been tested to remain resistant to water and sweat exposure.
Ultimately, the F.D.A. is recommending the use of a Broad Spectrum sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15 applied to exposed skin every 1 1/2 – 2 hours, in addition to wearing protective clothing, a wide brimmed hat, sun glasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection, and minimize direct sun exposure between 10am and 4pm.
Let’s also remember however that the body manufactures Vitamin D from sun exposure, so before you go overboard with the sunscreen, remember that a little sun exposure is also healthy too.