The New Sunscreen Rules

The New Sunscreen Rules

Sorting Out The New Rules On Sunscreen

Is an SPF of 100 better than 50? What do the terms waterproof, water resistant and broad spectrum really mean?

If you are confused, you are not alone. After a lot of arm wrestling back and forth, the FDA finalized its sweeping new sunscreen guidelines for consumers and they go into effect this year.

Let’s first rewind about 70 years. The first sunscreen was developed for troops in the South Pacific during World War II. It was a red sticky substance called "Red Vet Pet," or red veterinary petrolatum. Based off the name alone, it’s not hard to understand why so many veterans developed skin cancer later in life.

The marketing gurus at Coppertone acquired the formula, and by renaming it, had their day in the sun. Since the days of Red Vet Pet, the sunscreen industry has blossomed into a billion-dollar industry. Technology, science and manufacturing processes have outpaced our government’s ability to regulate sunscreens effectively.

The new guidelines, while far from perfect, are a welcomed step in the right direction.

Ultraviolet Light From The Sun

There are three forms of ultraviolet light from the sun: UVA, UVB and UVC. The ozone layer over North America still filters out most of the UVC — luckily, as it is the most carcinogenic of the three. Both UVA and UVB also induce skin cancers and DNA damage and pass right through the atmosphere.

SPF only refers to UVB protection. (Please read that sentence again. It is important.) Thus an SPF of 100 or even 10,000 offers zero protection from UVA. It is amazing that the FDA and sunscreen industry have chosen to quantify only one of the two cancer-causing forms of sunlight.

UVB is relatively easy to block but UVA is the problem child. Many of the strong UVA filters are not stable by themselves and have to be mixed with other chemicals that can raise the price of the sunscreen substantially. Helioplex and mexoryl are two words to look for when shopping for good UVA protection. I like to keep it simple and stick with zinc and titanium formulations that give good UVB and UVA coverage. These are usually cheaper and don’t look like diaper paste on your nose any longer (recall the circa 1980s lifeguard).

Against all predictions, the FDA did not implement a cap on the numerical value that could be assigned to a sunscreen’s SPF. Is an SPF of 100 really better than a 30? This is a common question we get in the office. Considering an SPF of 15 blocks about 94 percent of UVB rays and an SPF of 30 blocks only an additional 3 percent of UVB, one can quickly see there is a law of diminishing returns at work. The relationship between increasing SPF and degree of protection is certainly not linear. If you are really wringing your hands over trying to block 94 percent versus 97 percent of the UVB rays, you should probably not be out in the sun to start with. Most of the world has adopted an SPF limit of 50, but much like that pesky metric system they insist on using, we have decided to be different.

Regarding products with the 100 SPF, the sunscreen industry argues that higher SPFs are necessary because people do not apply the recommended amount. While I think this is a true statement, I hold concerns that a higher SPF applied improperly would lead to a false sense of security. It is an argument that goes both ways and I am happy the FDA is considering this issue for the future.

Protecting Your Skin From The Sun

Trying to be a good consumer of sunscreens has been challenging with all this to ponder. Most people just look for the term "Broad Spectrum" and assume they are getting UVA and UVB protection. The new rule states, "Only Broad Spectrum sunscreens with an SPF value of 15 or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protective measures." Those sunscreens that only achieve an SPF below 14 can only claim to prevent sunburn.

Dermatologists are particularly pleased that the term "Broad Spectrum" is finally being defined and standards for it are set and reproducible across the brands.

Ever been confused over what constitutes a sun block verses a sunscreen? You are not alone. The term "sun block" is now banished from the labeling lexicon.

The official standard to cover the average adult in sunscreen properly is 2mg/cm2, or 2 tablespoons. People give me a blank look when I tell them that. So instead I recommend the amount a shot glass could contain. This seems to resonate better with people. Sunscreen ideally should be applied about 20 minutes before exposure and every two hours after or as activity dictates.

Manufacturers will no longer be able to claim a product is "waterproof" or "sweat proof" either. "Water resistant" is the new favored term; and two time frames will be allowed to be listed: 40 minutes and 80 minutes. Of course those numbers reflect study conditions of 40 and 80 minutes of standing absolutely motionless in the water and not representative of normal human aquatic activity. I will still reapply at much sooner intervals, regardless of what the government and Big Industry put on my sunscreen label.

Fighting Skin Cancer

We are in the midst of a skin cancer epidemic with no end in sight. A frightening stat is that one American every hour dies of melanoma. While most skin cancers are not life threatening, they can necessitate extensive surgery and cause deformities that need surgical correction. However melanoma is a different story. While almost 100 percent curable if caught early, melanoma has a dismal survival rate once it spreads.

Despite a few experimental drugs that have grabbed headlines recently, we really are not significantly better off treating widespread melanoma than we were 40 years ago.

The marketing battalions of the sunscreen industry have been busy revamping their labels in anticipation of these changes. While it may take a few months for stores to exhaust their current stock of Dark Age labeled products, we consumers know clarity is on the near horizon.