How much do you actually know about the effectiveness of sunscreen?


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Summer's nearly here so it's important to remember to keep on hand those essentials for sun worshippers: water, a hat and — very important — sunscreen. But how much do we really know about the effectiveness of over-the-counter sun creams? A survey published by JAMA Dermatology suggests that, despite new labeling, consumers may still be confused.


Decoding the new labels

As much fun as it can be, being out in the sun can be risky, too. There are two kinds of UV rays that can harm the skin. UV-A radiation is linked to skin aging while UV-B radiation is associated with sunburn. Doctors warn that exposure to both is a risk factor for skin cancer.

In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new regulations for sunscreen manufacturers that would emphasize protection against both UV-A and UV-B radiation — known as broad spectrum protection.

A team of researchers working with Dr. Roopal V. Kundu of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago surveyed 114 patients at a dermatology clinic to examine their knowledge of sunscreen labels and general sun protection behaviors.

Despite the new labeling introduced by the FDA in 2011, according to the study, only 43 percent of those surveyed understood the definition of the sun protection factor (SPF) value.


Stumped by jargon

The authors found that most patients — 93 or 81.6 percent — had purchased sunscreen in 2013 and, for more than three quarters of them, preventing sunburn was the priority. The second most common reason given — by 75 patients or 65.8 percent — was to prevent skin cancer. The researchers also discovered that the top three factors influencing patients' decisions to purchase a particular brand were highest SPF value, sensitive skin formulation, and water and sweat resistance.

Despite this, however, fewer than half of the participants were able to correctly identify manufacturers' terminology that indicated how well the sunscreen protected against various hazards of sun exposure. Forty-three patients — or 37.7 percent of patients knew how well they would be protected against skin cancer, 8 — or 7 percent — could identify the level of defense against photo-aging and only 26 — just over a fifth —  understood the degree of protection from sunburn. Only 49 patients — 43 percent — understood the definition of SPF value.

The study offers a stark conclusion: "Despite the recent changes in labeling mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this survey study suggests that the terminology on sunscreen labels may still be confusing to consumers." When you consider that another recent study showed how sunburn doesn't even stop when you step into the shade, getting the right protection becomes even more important.

If you have questions about the new FDA regulations or about how to choose the right sunscreen for your summer days out, why not check out this advice and keep this infographic handy as the temperatures soar.