After many years, the FDA has taken steps this week to clear up “some” of the confusion regarding the use and effectiveness of sunscreen products. Comparing the various products on the market is very challenging for consumers. Inconsistent and misleading claims have been tolerated for far too long. Although the recent changes in labeling regulations are welcomed, they do not completely clear all the discrepancies.
Dermatologists have long recommended regular use of sunscreen to prevent the damaging effects of the sun leading to skin cancer and premature wrinkling of the skin. The medical consensus has been that SPF of 15 was the minimal strength that provided protection. Now under the newest regulations no product can make claims of that cancer protection without being at least that strong. Sunscreen products will also be required to protect against both ultraviolet A and B rays (UVA& UVB). This will eliminate some confusion about which protection is provided. Both cause the damaging effects that lead to skin cancer.
After 30 years of wrangling, the FDA regulations have caught up with the medical science that an SPF higher than 50 is no better. The higher or more expensive products do not provide greater protection contrary to popular belief. The science behind this is well established.
No product will be allowed to claim being waterproof. However, manufacturers will be allowed to estimate how long their product may be water or sweat resistant.
This still allows some room for confusion as the reality of individuals and their activities can create vast differences in the product performance.
Typical outdoor activities with prolonged sun exposure require reapplication of sunscreen for adequate protection. Specialists have also advocated reapplication as frequently as every 20 to 30 minutes or after swimming or excessive sweating. At the very least, once every hour sunscreen should be reapplied. These activities simply dilute the product applied and make it much less effective. For adequate protection, it has to be reapplied.
It’s important to remember that none of these products completely block the damaging UV rays. They filter it and slow the burning, damaging process.
For common everyday use, a product with SPF 15 is probably adequate. For outdoor recreation or work in the sun, SPF of 40 to 50 is recommended. Product claims of outlandish performance will no longer be allowed.
There still are issues of controversy that remain unresolved. It is not clear whether there is any advantage of spray over lotion. There have been some questions raised regarding safety of aerosol propellants and the sunscreen chemicals themselves. More study is needed to determine answers to these questions.
Yet it is clear that sun damage accumulates in the skin over time causing potentially deadly cancers that are easily prevented. Even one or two episodes of sunburn dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer.
Enjoy the summer, but protect your skin – and your life.
Dr. Bruce Kaler