Summer’s on the horizon. It’s time to ask yourself, “Should I splurge on the SPF 100 to get extra protection? And, how much extra protection am I really getting?”
Our experts agree: sunscreen labels can be confusing and at times misleading. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rules in place to help you understand exactly what you’re buying.
Sunscreen makers in the United States are required to use labels with simpler language.
“And, that’s good news for you because choosing the right sunscreen — and applying it correctly — can help protect your skin from harmful UV rays that can cause skin cancer,” says Saira George, M.D., a dermatologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Listed below are the important things you should be aware of.
Labels force manufacturers to be honest
Here’s what the sunscreen labels must — and must not — tell you:
Sunblocks: Since no product completely shields you from the sun, sunscreens can no longer be labeled “sunblocks.”
Sun protection factor: A sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more means a product lowers the risk of skin cancer and skin aging. Not so for SPFs from 2 to 14. They only help prevent sunburn at best. Sunscreen labels have to be clear about how much SPF they provide — and whether they actually curb your risk of skin cancer and skin aging, or just help prevent sunburns.
Broad-spectrum: To be labeled “broad-spectrum,” sunscreens must provide equal protection against the sun’s two types of radiation: UVA and UVB. Both types can lead to cancer. UVA gives you more wrinkles; UVB causes sunburns.
Waterproof and sweatproof: These claims are not allowed. Sunscreen makers can only say how long they offer water-resistant protection. And, they’ve got to back up these promises with test results.
Instant protection: Sunscreens can’t say they provide instant protection or that they protect skin for more than two hours. That’s unless the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves these claims for the specific sunscreen in question.
Choose a sunscreen you like and apply it liberally and often
The single most important factor in picking a sunscreen is finding one you like.
“Sunscreens are now available as creams, lotions, sprays, gels, wax sticks, wipes and more,” George says. “The old days of smelly, greasy sunscreens are gone. With so many new formulations, there’s a product for everyone.”
For safe fun in the sun, George recommends using sunscreen that:
- Provides SPF 30 or higher
- Has broad-spectrum protection (UVA and UVB)
- Is water-resistant
Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outdoors. And, be sure to reapply liberally every two hours.
“To really protect your skin, you should apply 1 ounce of sunscreen — the size of a golf ball — to cover every part of your body exposed to the sun,” George says. “That includes your ears, feet and back of the neck.”
These rules take a lot of the guesswork and uncertainty out of selecting a sunscreen.
But remember, the best protection against skin cancer and premature aging is to avoid UV rays, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and be sun smart by wearing a hat, glasses, and protective clothing. And absolutely do not use tanning beds.