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Health Talks

Newest labeling could help stem sun’s skin damage

Buying a sunscreen that really offers protection against skin cancer was supposed to get easier this summer. Instead, it could get even more confusing for consumers looking to protect their skin from the sun’s damaging rays.

Gabriela M. Blanco, M.D.

New guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration to simplify over-the-counter sunscreen labeling were expected to go into effect in June. A six-month delay, however, means that not all product lines will be following the adjusted rules. Still, informed consumers should keep an eye out for sunscreens that voluntarily feature the new labels.

Gabriela M. Blanco, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, took time to explain how the new labeling can affect consumer choices:

Q. When the FDA guidelines go into effect, products will no longer be labeled “waterproof” or “sweat proof.” Instead only “water resistant” may be used. Will that mean reapplying more often?

A. Sunscreens have never been waterproof – all the ingredients eventually wash off. They should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredients to fully bind to the skin. Reapplication is just as important as putting on a sunscreen in the first place, so reapply the same amount every two hours and immediately after swimming, toweling off, or sweating.

Q. Sunscreens also will no longer be labeled with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) higher than 50. Why isn’t higher better?

A. While an SPF of 2 will absorb 50 percent of ultraviolet radiation, SPF 15 blocks approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent; and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent.  The reason the new FDA guidelines limit the maximum value of SPF to 50 is because there is insufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection for users than products with SPF values of 50.

Q. With the new guidelines, will different products be needed for children compared to adults, or for overall application versus the face?

A. People do not need different sunscreens. But there are “chemical free” sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that are less likely to cause allergic reaction or irritation to the skin. These types of sunscreens are good options for children, and especially for anyone with sensitive skin. Regarding sunscreens for the face, some brands are less sticky, more sheer, and less comedogenic (acne aggravating) than others. Most sunscreens, however, work equally well for the face or body, and selecting more than one is more a matter of personal preference.

Q. Brands that don’t offer UVA and UVB ray protection and those with an SPF less than 15 will be required to warn on their packaging that spending time in the sun increases the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Why the cut-off?

A. Scientific data has demonstrated that products with an SPF of 15 or higher have been shown to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging, in addition to helping prevent sunburn. SPF 2 to SPF 14 only helps prevent sunburn.