Sunscreen Labels Get a Pass for Accuracy

Just in time for summer the FDA has granted manufacturers of sunscreen an extension for complying with new rules for labeling.

The decision to delay for six months imposition of rules that would have compelled manufacturers to be more truthful about the capabilities of their products reflects a concern that products will bear misinformation and that there will be a shortage of product. Some manufacturers said they wouldn’t be able to complete testing in time to accurately label all of their products.

As reported on MedPage Today, last summer the FDA said that sunscreens with SPF-15 or lower would be required by this summer to warn users on the packaging that they’re not getting as much protection as they might think.

The new rules were supposed to take effect June 17, and require manufacturers not to refer to their products as “sunblock,” “waterproof” and “sweatproof,” or as providing “all day protection.” The FDA says such claims are inflated.

Now, it will be December before the changes take effect. Small companies get an additional year.

Manufacturers of lotions and sprays with an SPF-sun protection factor-of at least 15 may claim on the label that they protect against sunburn, early signs of aging and skin cancer. And if a sunscreen offers adequate protection against ultraviolet B (UVB) as well ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, they may be labeled “broad spectrum.”

UVB rays are responsible for burns. UVA rays penetrate deeper and are responsible for wrinkling and other signs of aging. Both contribute to the risk of skin cancer. (To learn more about melanoma, or skin cancer, link here.)

The numerical value of a sunscreen is a measure of time. The numbers denote how long someone is expected to be protected from sunburn. They are NOT a measure of the strength of the compound’s protection. Different people require different periods of exposure to burn.

Someone with fair skin who begins to burn after five minutes would be protected, theoretically, for 75 minutes with use of an SPF 15-5 x 15. Someone with darker skin might get twice as much protection with the same application. Women’s skin is thinner, and burns more quickly then men’s. Black skin also burns, but it takes longer.

The intensity of UV radiation varies across the course of a day. Other factors influence the efficacy of sunscreen:

  • user’s skin type;
  • activities in which the user engages (swimmers, for example, lose efficacy sooner than sedentary sunbathers);
  • amount of lotion the skin has absorbed.

In general, if you spend any time at all in the sun, even indirectly, such as driving, use sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15. Apply it 20 minutes before exposure, and every two hours thereafter-more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating.

Use a broad spectrum product and read the labels, misleading though they may be until the end of the year. For maximum UVA protection, look for these ingredients: zinc oxide, avobenzone and/or ecamsule.

Contact the Skin Cancer Foundation for more information about the risks of sun exposure and how to minimize them.

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