The government has finally given us some guidance on what should be in a good sunscreen, so carefree days of lying out should be ahead of us shortly, right?
Yes, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded a 33-year effort to set standards for sunscreen, with rules that will take effect starting next year, but people still have to use the stuff properly -- and there's lots of evidence we don't.
The FDA says sunscreens can only be labeled "broad spectrum" if they provide protection against both ultraviolet A -- rays that penetrate deeply into the skin and capable of damaging DNA in a way likely to cause cancer -- and ultraviolet B, the radiation that makes the outer layers of our skin redden and blister, but is thought to do less long-term damage.
Any product that doesn't provide "broad spectrum" protection against both types of rays and have a Sun Protection Factor rating of at least 15 will be required to carry a warning that it can only help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.
The other big benefit is that the FDA is going to try and save consumers money as well as skin by clearing up some of the gobbledygook words and claims made on sun products.
First, there's to be no more use of the terms "sun block, waterproof or sweat proof" on labels, because they're simply false on any brand that uses them. No skin product completely blocks the sun and none is impervious to water or perspiration over time.
Sunscreen will be allowed to claim it is "water resistant" but will have to specify how long it will remain effective in the wet -- up to 40 minutes for lighter products, 80 minutes for the heavier gunk.
No sunscreen will be allowed to claim more than two hours of protection.
Only products that are actually rubbed onto or sprayed onto the skin will be allowed to call themselves sunscreen, so the myriad personal hygiene products that have slipped into the market claiming sun protection -- wipes, towelettes, makeup, body washes and shampoos are not allowed to claim broad-spectrum protection.
Most valuable, no product will be allowed to claim an SPF value higher than 50, meaning that those claiming 70, 80, even 100 SPF and beyond that are clogging shelves with higher sticker prices will have to go away unless manufacturers can prove them superior. The added bonus from this is that people theoretically will be less tempted to load up with a high SPF first thing in the morning and think they're good to go all day in the sun.
SPF simply calculates how long it takes to burn wearing a product versus wearing nothing. So SPF 15 means it will take you 15 times longer to crisp wearing that product than it would with bare skin.
Unfortunately, the FDA can't do much about human nature when it comes to protecting ourselves. A 2010 survey done for the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery -- specialists who try to save us from the cancerous results of sun excess -- found that only 1 in 5 adults put on sunscreen daily during the summer, and less than half put it on even when they expect to spend a lot of time outdoors.
Only about 28 percent of the more than 2,200 adults surveyed said they reapply sunscreen when they're out for many hours -- most guidelines say reapply after two hours.
The FDA, along with the Skin Cancer Foundation and others also stress that sunscreen should not be our only defense against solar radiation -- wearing sun-blocking clothing, a hat with a wide brim and UV rated sunglasses should be part of the mix. Experts also urge people who bring their own shade with them in the form of umbrellas or canopies to check to see if they have been rated for UV protection -- most canvas or nylon is of limited value against the sun. `Overexposure to the sun and indoor tanning are the main reasons that more than 3 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year among 2 million people -- about half of all cancers. Melanoma, the second-most common form of cancer among 15-to-29 year olds and considered the most deadly, continues to increase at a pace faster than any other type of cancer.