Summer. Just the word itself conjures up images of grilling outside with friends, sitting by the poolside and enjoying long sunny days. And for some people, the warm suns rays remind them to don sunscreen (although I'm sure you know to wear sunscreen everyday, regardless of the season). Whether you're a year-round sunscreen wearer (yay!) or a sunny-day-only wearer (still risky because the suns rays can penetrate the cloud layer), the new sunscreen labelling scheme might seem confusing. However, the new FDA labeling laws are designed to take the guesswork out of protecting your skin.
Just as a quick refresher course, SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is a measure of a product's effectiveness against only the sun's UVB radiation. However, both UVB and UVA rays cause skin damage that can result in skin cancer. So what's the difference between those UVA and UVB rays?, you ask. UVB rays have short wavelengths and are most intense between 10am and 2pm (depending on your latitude and the season). They don't generally penetrate glass and don't penetrate the skin deeply, but UVB rays burn the skin. As such, they play a part in the development of skin cancers and premature photoaging. UVA rays have longer wavelengths and are at equal intensity during all daylight hours. These rays are much, much more prevalent than UVB rays (UVA accounts for more than 90% of the UV radiation at the earth's surface) and unlike UVB rays, UVA rays can penetrate clouds and glass. Until recently it was believed that UVA rays were only responsible for tanning the skin and so the focus was only on preventing sunburns from UVB rays (hence SPF values only consider UVB rays). However, we now know that UVA rays tan the skin by travelling deep into the skin, resulting in damage. When UVA rays damage the cells' DNA, the body's defense is to produce melanin to protect the skin from more radiation. In other words, a tan is the result of DNA damage. And that damage can lead to skin cancer and premature aging.
Now, on to the new labeling regulations!
Prior to these new regulations, the term "sunscreen" was used for products that offered only UVB protection and the term "sunblock" was generally used for products that offered UVB and UVA protection. However, no longer will you see "sunblock", which implies that the product completely blocks all of the suns rays, but now only the term sunscreen can be used on a product. Products that filter both UVB and UVA rays can use the claim "broad-spectrum" (but the FDA requires a test to prove the claim). Remember that a high SPF value only indicates protection against UVB rays.
The misleading terms "waterproof" and "sweatproof" have been replaced by the more accurate "water-resistant" and "sweat-resistant". Sunscreens that are water-resistant and/or sweat-resistant, still need to be reapplied at appropriate intervals. Plan to reapply after 40 minutes of swimming or 80 minutes of sweating.
Keep watch for two new alerts that you'll see on the labels of any product claiming sun protection. Products without broad-spectrum protection and/or a SPF less than 15, must now include a skin aging/skin cancer alert. This alerts the customer that the sun protection is limited to preventing sunburn but does not protect against skin cancer or premature aging. Products with broad-spectrum protection (and a SPF of 15 or higher) are allowed to claim that they help prevent skin cancer and skin aging. Remember, that regardless of the sunscreen claim it is important to wear protective clothing, hats and sunglasses whenever possible and stay out of the sun from 10am to 2pm, when the sun's rays are the most harsh.
TIPS TO REMEMBER:
No sunscreen is waterproof or sweatproof. Make sure to reapply after 40 minutes of swimming or 80 minutes of sweating.
- When possible, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen to ensure protection from UVA and UVB rays.
- Wear sunscreen year-round to protect your skin (if you live in a snowy area, a sunny winter day can be worse for your skin than a sunny summer day because snow reflects light).
- Wearing sunscreen is important but should also be combined with other healthy skin habits, like wearing protective clothing and hats.
- Avoid direct sunlight from 10am to 2pm because the rays are most damaging during the peak of the day.