How to read sunscreen labels so you pick the right one for you


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Can't wait to catch some rays? Before you head out to parks, rooftops, beaches and backyards for some sun worshiping action, make sure your skin is protected. That means using a good sunscreen. Be sure to read the label before you buy!

After recognizing that not all sunscreens are created equal, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established standards in summer 2012 for testing the effectiveness of sunscreen products. It also began to require labeling that accurately reflects those test results.

The FDA's final regulations include these additional labeling provisions:

  • Sunscreen products that are not broad spectrum or that are broad spectrum with SPF values from 2 to 14 will be labeled with a warning that reads: “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
  • Water-resistance claims on the product's front label must tell how much time a user can expect to get the declared SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Two times will be permitted on labels: 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
  • Manufacturers cannot make claims that sunscreens are “waterproof” or “sweatproof” or identify their products as “sunblocks.” Also, sunscreens cannot claim protection immediately on application (for example, “instant protection”) or protection for more than two hours without reapplication, unless they submit data and get approval from FDA.

Under these new regulations, sunscreen products that protect against all types of sun-induced skin damage will be labeled "Broad Spectrum" and “SPF 15” (or higher) on the front. The revised labeling will also tell consumers on the back of the product that sunscreens labeled as both “Broad Spectrum” and “SPF 15” (or higher) not only protect against sunburn, but also, if used as directed with other sun protection measures, can reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.


A note on SPF values higher than 50

The FDA does not have adequate data demonstrating that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide additional protection compared with products with SPF values of 50. If using SPF 100 makes you feel better, by all means carry on. It's just something for folks to consider, since the jury is still out on values higher than 50.

Infographic by abullseyeview.com

Additional tips to keep your skin safe

  • Use sunscreens with broad spectrum SPF values of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.
  • Limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.
  • Wear clothing to cover skin exposed to the sun; for example, long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours — more often if you’re sweating or jumping in and out of the water.