Is the SPF rating on sunscreens outdated science?

Is the SPF rating on sunscreens outdated science?



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — In June 2011, the FDA issued new guidelines for sunscreen products. Those rules officially went into effect as of June 18, 2012. They establish a new standard for testing over-the-counter (sold without a prescription) sunscreen products that will determine which products are allowed to be labeled as “broad spectrum.”

The differences between UVB and UVA need to be further researched, but exposure to the combination of UVB and UVA is a powerful attack on the skin and creates irreversible skin damage, including sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. Protection from these rays is the only way to avoid these problems.

In order to get adequate protection against both UVA and UVB, you should select a sunscreen that provides multispectrum protection or broad-spectrum protection or UVA/UVB protection — not just a sunscreen with a high SPF (UVB) rating. Additionally, the label should list an FDA-recognized long wavelength UVA sunscreen, such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide.

Utah has the fourth highest rate of melanoma in the nation. Dr. Glen Bowen with the Huntsman Cancer Institute says, “Utah's rate of skin cancer is high partly because of the state's high altitude and southern latitude. It also has a high percentage of Caucasians that is less adapted to sun exposure.” Moreover, the majority of skin cancer is caused by sun exposure. "About one person dies every hour in the U.S. of skin cancer, and the vast majority of these are preventable," Bowen said.

According to Lydia Velazquez at the FDA, “Our scientific understanding has grown. We want consumers to understand that not all sunscreens are created equal.” Moreover, Velazquez said, “This new information will help consumers know which products offer the best protection from the harmful rays of the sun. It is important for consumers to read the entire label, both front and back, in order to choose the appropriate sunscreen for their needs.”

The new rules adopted by the FDA banned the use of certain words like “sun block," "waterproof" and "prevents skin cancer" and require dramatic changes in labeling and testing for sunscreen products.

You would think those new rules would offer some guidance or perhaps protection for consumers during the upcoming summer season. Unfortunately, the FDA postponed the compliance dates for manufacturer testing and labeling until Dec. 17, 2012, for most over-the-counter sunscreen products.

According to Velazquez, “With summer coming, we wanted to ensure we had sunscreen products available on store shelves for everyone.”

So for now, we are saddled with the outdated and misleading SPF labeling for one more season. The new rules and regulations, seemingly designed to protect consumers, will have to wait another year before we see significant changes on sunscreen labeling. Everyone now needs help reading and understanding SPF labels.

Meanwhile, according to the Environmental Working Group, the Washington, D.C., think tank, our European neighbors “have more options than in the United States. … Sunscreen makers can select from among 27 chemicals for their formulations, compared to 17 in the U.S. Companies there … can add any of seven UVA filters to their product, but (here there are) … only three available for products.” ... European “sun screen chemicals approved provide up to five times more UVA protection.”

Consumers in the U.S. have been waiting for five years for the FDA to approve use of the same compounds. “Until the FDA approves these ingredients and lifts restrictions on combining certain active ingredients, strong UVA protection will be scarce in U.S. sunscreens,” wrote the EWG.

In the end, the best way to protect yourself is to limit exposure, although the option seems unpleasant and impractical for many. Consumers can use multispectrum or broad-spectrum sunscreens of at least 30 SPF up to 50 SPF. Above the SPF 50 rating, according to the FDA, there is limited or unknown effectiveness in higher SPF values.

Broad brimmed hats and sunglasses should be a part of everyone’s summer wardrobe, and protective clothes like long-sleeve shirts are also recommended. A number of companies offer SPF-rated clothing and protective hats. It should also be noted that some clothing, if wet, is completely ineffective as a sun blocker.

The hours of highest exposure are between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter and because of daylight saving time in the summer, those hours should be adjusted to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The FDA only says until 2 p.m., however, nearly all other sources quote 4 p.m. There is disagreement in the scientific community on this point. Both the EPA and the CDC suggest the later time.

Seeking shade as much as possible during this time is good. Water, snow and sand actually reflect the sun’s rays and increase the chance of sunburn and skin damage.

Lastly, visit your dermatologist or doctor for at least one yearly skin cancer check. Bowen suggests three to four times a year. Also, watch and check the size, shape and color of moles. If you notice any changes or if a mole starts to hurt, bleed, become scaly, or if it grows in size or changes color, get it checked immediately.

Additional risk factors include having a fair complexion, blue, green or gray eyes, a family history of skin cancer, many moles, or having had severe sunburn as a child. All of these factors may be cause for concern and would put you at a higher risk requiring you to take extra steps to protect yourself from the summer sun.

The FDA offers these tips

Sun safety tips

To reduce risks, consumers should regularly use sun protection measures including:

  • Use sunscreens with broad-spectrum SPF values of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.
  • Limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense. The FDA’s recommendation is less stringent than most other experts in the field who recommend 4 p.m. (Daylight saving time is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but this is not included in the FDA suggestion and is two hours longer than recommended by the FDA, but is recommended by most other experts in the field and other government agencies, including the EPA and the CDC.)
  • Wear clothing to cover skin exposed to the sun; for example, long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, more often if you’re sweating or jumping in and out of water.

Mel Borup Chandler lives in California. He writes about science-related topics for ksl.com and FamilyNews.com. He and his wife, Sandra, are also entertainment correspondents for Southern California. His email address is mbccomentator@roadrunner.com.

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Mel Borup Chandler

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