The Food and Drug Administration is adopting new testing and labeling requirements for sunscreens to shed more light on their effectiveness in protecting against skin cancer and early skin aging and to dispel myths that give a false sense of security to those who spend long hours in the sun.
The new rules, which become effective next summer, address in particular the confusion about what kinds of ultraviolet radiation a sunscreen protects against. Earlier rules dealt almost exclusively with protection against sunburn, which is primarily caused by ultraviolet B, or UVB, radiation and did not address ultraviolet A, or UVA, radiation. UVB and UVA can cause sunburn, skin cancer, skin aging and eye injuries, the FDA says, but UVA penetrates deeper, to where new skin cells grow.
A sunscreen’s SPF value reflects its effectiveness in protecting against UVB sunburn only, the FDA says. Its new rules require manufacturers to test their sunscreens’ effectiveness in protecting against both UVA and UVB. Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum SPF 15” or higher protect against both types of radiation and reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when they’re used with other sun protection measures, the FDA says. They also help to prevent sunburn.
• Sunscreens that are not broad spectrum or that are broad spectrum with SPF values from 2 to 14 will carry a warning on the label reading, “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
• Claims of water resistance on the label must be tested and tell how much time a user can expect to get protection while swimming or sweating. Two times will be permitted: 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
• Manufacturers cannot assert that sunscreens are “waterproof” or “sweatproof” or identify their products as “sunblocks.” Also, manufacturers cannot assert protection immediately upon application (most sunscreens take 30 to 60 minutes to chemically bond to the skin) or protection for more than two hours without reapplication unless they submit data and get approval from the FDA.
• Sunscreens that have SPF values higher than 50 will be labeled “SPF 50+.” The FDA says the data do not show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide better protection than those classified SPF 50.
Exposure to the sun is a serious matter for boaters, says Dr. Michael Jacobs, co-author of “A Comprehensive Guide to Marine Medicine” (Adventure Medical Kits, July 2005, second edition coming out this fall).”I think it’s one of the major health risks for boaters through the season and throughout the year,” Jacobs says.
A sailor, safety-at-sea lecturer and resident of Vineyard Haven, Mass., Jacobs says the No. 1 medical problem on Newport Bermuda Races is sunburn on cloudy days, when sailors don’t “goo up” because the sun isn’t out. Clouds don’t stop sunburn-causing ultraviolet radiation from reaching the boat.
The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., which is when boaters usually are on the water. A choppy sea reflects almost all of the UV radiation that hits it and redirects it toward the boater, causing sunburns under the chin and nose and behind the ears. He says a baseball cap protects the scalp, forehead and upper nose, but the ears, the lower nose, the sides of the face and the neck remain exposed.
“I live in Vineyard Haven and literally half of my sailing colleagues have had lesions removed from their ears and nose,” he says.
He says a broad-brimmed hat with a long neck flap is essential wear on the boat. And boaters should “goo up.” He recommends SPF 30, a shot glass full to cover the whole body if you’re wearing a swimsuit. Reapply after going in the water. Water breaks the chemical bond between the sunscreen and the body. Sweat also breaks the bond. In any case, apply at least every two hours.
He recommends an opaque sunblock containing zinc or titanium dioxide for the nose and lips. Wear UV-protective sunglasses to prevent cataracts and other eye injuries. The FDA says broad spectrum SPF 15 or higher sunscreen, used “with other sun protection measures,” can reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.
Those other measures are covering up — wearing long-sleeve shirts and long pants or long shorts. “Sun-protected skin is ageless,” Jacobs says.
He recommends lightweight, tightly woven, dark-colored UV protective clothing with a UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor, rating. He says UPF 50 or higher is excellent, 39 to 49 is very good.
Despite widespread sunscreen use, incidents of skin cancer of all kinds — deadly melanoma, in particular — are “reaching epidemic proportions,” Jacobs says. One theory for this is that sunscreen users believe the product gives them complete protection, so they stay in the sun longer, increase their exposure to ultraviolet radiation and “expose themselves to melanoma and other skin cancers,” he says.
He stresses that covering up is the best protection against cancer and premature skin aging. “Eighty percent of skin aging is from sun exposure,” he says, and then quips, “The other 20 percent is from raising children.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.