As summer approaches, consumers stocking up on sun care products may be seeing some unfamiliar terms and others might be unable to find the types of products they have used in the past. That’s because this is the first summer in which new sunscreen standards and requirements from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are in effect. Accounting for nearly half of all cases of cancer in the U.S., skin cancer is the most common type and more than 3.5 million Americans will be diagnosed with this potentially disfiguring, costly and deadly disease in 2014. The best way to lower the risk of skin cancer is to practice effective sun safety year round.
Adam Friedman, M.D., director of Dermatologic Research at Montefiore Medical Center explains what the FDA changes mean and offers tips to help people choose products that feature the latest advancements in sunscreen.
• Water-resistant: Sunscreens claiming to be waterproof and sweat proof are no longer on the shelves. In their place are 40- and 80-minute water-resistant sunscreens. “What was once called water/sweat proof is now thought of as water-resistant because these products only offer successful sun protection for a limited amount of time when they are exposed to water,” said Dr. Friedman. “Choose an 80-minute water-resistant sunscreen, and reapply after getting out of the pool, ocean or even toweling off from a good workout.”
• Sun Protection Factor (SPF): A common misconception is that SPF measures the length of time users can be in the sun before getting sunburned. SPF defines the amount of ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation needed to cause a sunburn, even while sunscreen is on.
o Sunscreens with SPF 2-SPF 14 can prevent sunburn, but they provide no protection against skin cancer or premature skin aging. Such sunscreens must now carry a warning label stating, “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.”
o The FDA has yet to rule on whether products with SPF values higher than 50 provide additional protection compared to products with SPF values of 50.
o In order for a sunscreen to reach its listed SPF, a full ounce needs to be applied. Recent research shows that in real life situations, people only apply 20-25% of this amount, unknowingly lowering the protection factor of their sunscreens. “Skin cancer does not discriminate – regardless of skin type, everyone should apply a healthy amount of a sunblock that is SPF 30 or higher,” said Dr. Friedman.
• Broad spectrum: Until the final FDA requirements took effect, sunscreens were only evaluated and regulated for their ability to protect against UVB radiation, as measured by SPF. Now, sunscreens also are evaluated for their UVA protective capacity. Those containing ingredients that protect against both UVA and UVB radiation are labeled as “broad spectrum” sunscreens.
“UVA penetrates deeper into the skin where it can accelerate skin aging and cause skin cancer. I call UVA the silent killer, because unlike UVB, it does not cause sunburns so it is hard to tell if you are getting harmful exposure,” said Dr. Friedman. “Broad spectrum sunscreen use should not be limited to beach outings or summer months. Recent research demonstrated that the skin aging process is significantly slower among people who apply broad spectrum sunscreen daily, year round.”
• Read the ingredients: Sunscreen manufacturers use different combinations of ingredients. Choose products that have a variety of sun-blocking agents.
o Dr. Friedman recommends selecting a sunscreen that contains several organic sun-blocking agents such as ecamsule, cinoxate, octyl salicylate, and benzophenones (i.e. oxybenzone). The different chemicals work in synergy to create greater sun protection than any one ingredient individually. Additionally, combining multiple agents allows manufacturers to use less of each, thereby decreasing the risk of any associated irritation.
o The best products will also contain mineral, physical sun-blocking agents like zinc oxide and titanium oxide. In the past, these ingredients appeared chalky and left skin greasy, but newer products deliver “micronized” thinner, sheerer formulations. Products containing talc and bentone gel prevent these ingredients from clumping, and improve cosmetic appearance.
o Look for pH stabilizers to hydrate and fortify the skin, like dimethicone, cyclomethicone and sodium phosphate. When the skin is hydrated, its can heal and repair itself much more quickly.
“The most important things to remember are to generously apply a shot-glass worth of broad spectrum SPF 30-50 sunscreen at least 15-20 minutes before sun exposure and every two hours thereafter,” said Dr. Friedman. “But remember, sunscreen alone is not enough to protect you from skin cancer and skin aging. Wear hats, sun glasses and protective clothing and seek shade between 10 am and 4 pm during the summer months.”
*Image of “sunburn on the feet” via Shutterstock