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Expert comment on new FDA sunscreen labels

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration announced new rules for sunscreen labels that will take effect in the summer of 2012. The rules affect several aspects of the labeling, including the sun protection factor, or SPF, numbers and the words that can be used to describe sunscreens' protective abilities. To get the scoop on what these changes will mean for consumers, I chatted with Latanya Benjamin, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

What do you think of the FDA's new rules about sunscreen labels?

These changes are exciting – we dermatologists have been eagerly waiting for them. The new rules are a very good thing because they're going to help consumers get more accurate, consistent messages from sunscreen labels.

The most important changes are that sunscreen products will have to pass FDA testing to use terms like "broad spectrum" on their labels, and we'll have fewer misleading claims such as "sunblock" and "waterproof."

Why is it a good idea to prohibit the words "sunblock" and "waterproof" on sunscreen labels?

The big benefit of not using those terms is that people won't have a false sense of security. No product completely blocks the sun, and everything washes off eventually. Under the new system, sunscreens that used to be called "waterproof" will be able to carry the label "water resistant," and will have to specify the length of time they resist water or sweat – 40 or 80 minutes. Avoiding the old claims will prevent people from thinking they are getting more protection than they really are.

The new rules state that sunscreen labels can't carry SPF values higher than 50. What's the benefit of that change?

This change clears up the question of whether more protection is better. Above SPF 50, there is no additional benefit to a higher SPF number. As dermatologists, we'll be able to say "choose a sunscreen between SPF 30 and 50" or "between SPF 15 and 50" – and parents and consumers will be comfortable that it's not necessary to choose higher numbers than that.

Sunscreens that are labeled "broad spectrum" and also have an SPF of at least 15 will be able to claim that they reduce the risk of skin cancer. Can you clarify why this combination of characteristics would help prevent skin cancer?

Most people know that a higher SPF number means more protection from sunburn, but people may not know what "broad spectrum" protection means – that's a new aspect of the labeling system. There are two types of ultraviolet rays that we worry about, UVA and UVB. I tell my patients to think of "B for Burning" and "A for Aging," because UVB light causes sunburns and UVA light contributes to DNA damage, ages the skin and increases skin cancer risk.

Historically, the SPF numbers tested only UVB protection. But UVA wavelengths need to be blocked as well. Now, the FDA will actually be testing sunscreens to see if they offer UVA protection. Those that are labeled "broad spectrum" will cover both. Using a sunscreen that offers the combination of "broad spectrum" plus a high SPF can lower skin cancer risk.

When you are giving your patients suggestions about sunscreen use, what descriptors from the new labels will you suggest they look for?

They should look on the bottle for "broad spectrum" and an SPF of 30 to 50. If they tend to participate in water sports or an activity that causes sweating, they should also look for "water resistant" and pay attention to whether the product resists water for 40 or 80 minutes. The first two characteristics are a must – it has to say "broad spectrum" and SPF 30 to 50.

Once people have purchased a good sunscreen, what are the best tips for using it correctly?

You need to use a sufficient amount. If you're covering your whole body, you need an ounce – equivalent to a shot glass size. Also, people should reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, or more often if they're exposed to water or sweating a lot.

Previously: Expert answers on sun precautions for kids
Photo by Noodle93

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