Shining a light on SPF labels: FDA's new regulation will take out the guessing game of which lotion to use while in the sun

June 16, 2013|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Sunscreen labeling
By Yvette May/Staff Photographer

Teenagers don’t get skin cancer. At least, that’s what Katie Carmichael believed.

But an indentation on her leg tells a different story — a scar that remains five years after a specialist removed an inch of flesh, half a centimeter deep, where a mole had been.

She was 19 years old when she received a diagnosis of malignant melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Blonde, blue-eyed with a fair complexion, she knew she was susceptible to sunburns, but endured them, nonetheless, in an effort to fit in with her friends who all had tans.

She spent summers at the pool or beach, sometimes remembering to wear sunscreen. But if she didn’t, it was no big deal, she thought. 

“Being diagnosed with skin cancer never entered my mind. It was something that older people who had spent a lifetime in the sun had to deal with,” the 24-year old Hagerstown woman said. “I was really naive.”


Doctors have long encouraged their patients to wear sunscreen, noting it not only protects from skin cancer, but helps prevent aging caused by sun damage.

But selecting just any sunscreen doesn’t mean you have it made in the shade.

Skin cancer rates continue to climb, reports the American Cancer Society, with melanoma diagnoses rising nearly 2 percent a year since 2000.

Some experts blame those statistics on the inappropriate use of sunscreen and the confusion caused by the labels on the bottle.

For many years, selecting the right sunscreen has been a guessing game. Some products with a high sun protection factor or SPF, were designed primarily to protect people from ultraviolet B rays, the main cause of sunburn. They enabled users to stay out longer but didn’t necessarily protect from ultraviolet A rays, associated with premature aging, skin cancer and skin damage.

And if you were unsure of which SPF factor was best — 15, 30, 50, 100 — take a number.

Then there were the questions of whether a lotion was waterproof and how often it should be applied.

New SPF labeling

After 33 years of consideration, the Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to sort out the baffling world of sunscreen.

This summer, consumers will find new wording on product labels and a few missing phrases that were commonly found on products in previous years.

The most important change is a new reference to “broad spectrum protection,” which means the product you’re buying protects against all harmful ultraviolet rays. If those words are missing, you will not get such protection.

Sunscreen will continue to identify the SPF or sun protection factor for each product but products that are not broad spectrum or lack an SPF of at least 15 must now carry a warning:  “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.”

Products can no longer be identified as sunblocks or claim instant protection or protection for more than two hours without reapplying.

You won’t find any references to “waterproof” or “sweat proof” sunscreen, which have been eliminated from the sunscreen vocabulary. And if a product’s front label makes claims of being water resistant, it must designate whether it’s protective for 40 or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating.

The new labeling also comes with better directions for how to use these products, including the recommendation of reapplying the lotion every two hours when you’re outdoors, even if you’re not perspiring.

The FDA rules have been under consideration since 1978, when most lotions were intended to encourage tanning, not protect against it.  The new guidelines are based on the latest available science from 2011 and became final in December of 2012.

And though the new regulations have been a long time coming, it’s better late than never, says the medical community.

“The new FDA guidelines for sunscreen labeling are wonderful,” said Nickie Fickel, Community Health Manager with Summit Health in Franklin County, Pa. “They are an important step in giving us information to help us all make healthy choices regarding skin protection.”

“In the past,” Fickel said, “everyone has been very focused on UVB protection, which is the sun’s ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns. But, now, we are seeing a much needed increase in education on the importance of also protecting ourselves from UVA rays, which cause skin cancer and accelerated skin aging. I’m hopeful this tactic will help clear up any confusion about the safety provided by sunscreens we’ve purchased.” 

Protecting your skin

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