Before you stash sunscreen in your beach bag, tennis bag, glove compartment or wherever you keep it for upcoming sunny days, take a minute to check the label to be sure you’re applying ultimate protection.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revised the requirements for sunscreen labeling last year, and the changes take effect this summer. Here’s what you need to know and look for:
Broad-spectrum protection. This means the sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays cause skin aging and damage, and UVB rays cause sunburn. Neither is good, so you need to defend your skin against both. Under the new labeling rules, a sunscreen can be labeled “broad-spectrum” only if it protects against both types of harmful rays.
No such thing as waterproof. Sunscreen labels will now say “water resistant,” because no sunscreen is truly waterproof. Both swimming and sweating cause it to wash off and leave your skin exposed to sun damage. The new sunscreen labeling rules also require sunscreen manufacturers to state whether the sunscreen needs to be reapplied in 40 or 80 minutes.
Sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more. I once subscribed to the “more is more” theory when it came to sunscreen, thinking that SPF of 70 or 85 surely must be better. But studies haven’t proven that true. There’s no evidence that sunscreen with an SPF of greater than 50 adds any protection, the FDA says.
Ingredient info. Look for sunscreen with avobenzone, oxybenzone, and titanium dioxide, which protect against both UVA and UVB rays. There is some caution about zinc oxide, contained in sunscreens that provide a physical barrier (zinc oxide is the white stuff you often see on lifeguards’ noses). Researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology found that human lung cells in a solution containing nanoparticles of zinc oxide release electrons when exposed to UV light in the laboratory. This reaction may release free radicals, the researchers say, which typically seek to bind with other cells and may damage them in the process. The study is preliminary, and does not conclude that zinc oxide should be avoided. But plenty of sunscreens do the job without this ingredient.
Use enough to make it matter. Be generous when you apply sunscreen. You need enough to fill a shot glass or a glob about the size of a golf ball to protect exposed skin, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. A study in the Archives of Dermatology found that most people apply only 25 to 50 percent of the recommended sunscreen amount.
Don’t rely on sunscreen alone. While sunscreen helps protect you against the deadly skin cancer, melanoma, it’s not an absolute shield. Melanoma will strike 75,000 people in 2012, according to the American Cancer Society. Of the 12,000 deaths from skin cancer that will occur this year, 9,000 of them will be from melanoma—that averages to one person dying every hour from this lethal form of skin cancer.
Just because you have sunscreen on, it’s still not safe to bask at the beach, in the baseball stadium stands, or out on a boat this summer. Stay out of the sun during peak hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and put on your long-sleeved shirt and your broad-brimmed hat, too. Even an overcast day can produce a wicked sunburn, so don’t be fooled by June gloom. And, remember to protect your eyes with a cool pair of shades, too.