The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced changes to the labels of over-the-counter sunscreen, changes that could help reduce confusing and misleading information for consumers by summer 2012.
Among the alterations are setting a standard for “broad spectrum” sunscreens, abolishing the use of the term “waterproof” and potentially setting a maximum SPF, or sun protection factor, manufacturers can use.
Although these labels won’t change much in the types of sunscreen offered in stores, it will make buying and using sunscreen more understandable for consumers, said Dr. Ron Hansen, a pediatric dermatologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
The understanding of sun protection is especially important in the Valley, which sees an average of 310 days of sunshine a year, according to the National Weather Service.
While sunburn is the immediate response to skin damage, the long-term effects include premature skin aging and skin cancer. With a better understanding of sunscreen use, eventually Arizona’s skin cancer rates may lower.
When Kim Clark, 20, of Chandler was 13 she was diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer. At the time of her diagnosis Clark was the youngest person in Arizona to have melanoma.
An active soccer player, Clark had gone in for a yearly physical. She said she had always used sunscreen, always wore protective clothing out in the sun.
“My world was thrown upside down,” Clark said about the diagnosis.
Within two weeks of the discovery, she had invasive surgery to extract the cancerous tissue, leaving a 5-inch scar. Over the years, she has had a few other suspicious moles removed.
Today she follows all the recommended ways to protect herself from further skin damage, including wearing sunscreen.
Sunscreen label changes
For years, sunscreens have touted “waterproof” labels that promise parents that their sunscreen is safe for kids who are swimming. The FDA, however, said that there is no waterproof sunscreen because eventually it all washes off.
“You put on SPF 100, and then jump in the water,” Hansen said. “When you get out, it’s SPF 0.”
Instead, makers will have to change labels to say “water resistant” — and the labels will have to specify when sunscreen should be reapplied to protect against sun damage.
Waterproof isn’t only term disappearing from labels. “Sweatproof” and “sunblock” will also disappear because they overstate the effectiveness of the product, the FDA’s website states.
For years, there has been something of an arms race when it comes to high SPF sunscreen. Some lotions claim to be above SPF 100. A part of the new regulation that is still up for public comment until September sets a maximum sun protection factor to “SPF 50+.”
“It (the regulation) should help eliminate bogus SPF claims,” Hansen said.
According to the FDA, studies haven’t significantly proven that any sunscreen labeled higher than SPF 50 actually protects any better than those marked SPF 50.
As part of the new regulations, over-the-counter sunscreens that offer broad spectrum or UVA/UVB radiation protection will have to meet certain standards to make that claim. In the past, most sunscreens protected against UVB radiation, the type of radiation that causes burning, tanning and some skin cancer. UVA radiation wavelengths, on the other hand, penetrate deeper into the skin and are responsible for premature aging and skin cancer.
Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF 15 rating can say they protect from premature aging and skin cancer. Sunscreens with a SPF between 2 and 14, both broad spectrum and non-broad spectrum, can only claim to protect against sunburn.
Skin protection information
Hansen said the top three ways to protect yourself from skin damage are avoiding the sun, wearing protective clothing while outside and applying sunscreen.
“I want to emphasize that sunscreen is third,” Hansen said.
Avoiding the sun during the peak hours of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is the key, Hansen said. These are the hours that ultraviolet rays are most powerful.
Using clothing to cover up usually works better than sunscreen, Hansen said. He advises using a sun guard laundry powder that increases clothing’s ability to block UV rays.
The trick to sunscreen use is reapplication.
“Reapply at least every three hours,” Hansen said, “If you’re swimming, even more often.”
Arizona only tracks the number of melanoma cases, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. Counting the other, more common types would be “overwhelming,” said Dr. Tim Flood of the state Department of Health Services.
Currently, Arizona reports about the same average number of melanoma cases as other states, Flood said. Conversely, a study conducted by the University of Arizona in the 1990s found that Arizona had the second highest rate of skin cancer in the world after Australia.
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