Choosing a sunscreen is often a confusing ordeal. If the large number of products available doesn't overwhelm you, the misleading labeling and overzealous advertising may. A ruling by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aims to clear up the confusion with strict labeling guidelines that take effect in December (2013 for small companies).
Here's a short tutorial in all things sunscreen to help you understand what you will soon see on sunscreen bottles everywhere:
The first is a large number that holds the most real estate on the bottle: the SPF or the sunscreen protection factor. This is one area that hasn't changed much with the new laws, but it is a number that is frequently misunderstood. For instance, many people think that an SPF 30 sunscreen offers double the protection of an SPF 15. In actuality, the difference is slight. Experts say SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of rays, while SPF 30 blocks 97 percent.
Additionally, SPF ratings higher than 30 don't offer more UV protection, and they let the same 3 percent of UV rays through as SPF 30 sunscreen. However, a higher SPF means you may not have to reapply as often but the FDA is considering new guidelines that would only allow a maximum SPF of 50+ (it hasn't passed yet). And to confuse matters even more, SPF only applies to UVB rays. For that reason, it's just as important to look specifically for UVA protection. Ultimately, when it comes to purchasing sunscreen, know that SPF 30 offers adequate protection when extended sun exposure is expected and SPF 15 is suitable for everyday use.
Starting in December, if the label lists "broad-spectrum protection" it means that the sunscreen protects against both UVA (long rays that cause cancer and skin aging) and UVB rays (short rays that cause sunburns). In the past, sunscreen manufacturers could use this label if they provided even the slightest amount of UVA protection. Under the new guidelines companies will have to prove that they provide "adequate" protection in order to use the label.
At this point, we're not exactly sure what "adequate" means. There is still no rating system for UVA protection to help consumers readily determine the best option. For this reason, experts say it's best to check the ingredient list to make sure that your sunscreen contains avobenzone, Mexoryl SX, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (these last two are more natural sunscreen ingredients), each of which is a key protective ingredient against UVA rays.
Furthermore, only sunscreens that provide broad-spectrum protection with an SPF of 15 or higher will be allowed to claim a reduced risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Those that do not meet the aforementioned guidelines must warn consumers that the product has not been shown to help prevent skin cancer and early skin aging.
The new guidelines will also do away with the terms "waterproof", "sweat-proof" and "sunblock" to describe products. "Sunblock" is not a completely accurate term because no product can block all harmful rays. Likewise, sunscreens can more accurately be described as water- and sweat-resistant because they need to be reapplied after exercise or contact with water. Sunscreens are now also required to list the amount of time they remain water/sweat resistant. Additionally, manufacturers will no longer be allowed to claim protection for more than two hours without first submitting proof that those claims are accurate.
Finally, you may notice that some sunscreens display logos from the American Cancer Society (ACS). This does not indicate that the ACS has tested or endorses the sunscreen -- the group charges manufacturers a royalty fee for the right to display their logo.
Due to the new guidelines, you may see some changes to your favorite sunscreen in the near future. Adjustments may range from simple name changes to formula modifications. It's important to note that the sunscreens recommended by ConsumerSearch have always provided adequate broad spectrum protection but many of them have used labeling terms that are now outlawed by the FDA.