Even though sunscreen labels can be confusing, skin-protection products play an important part in guarding against skin cancer and sunburn. When working outside, use sunscreen liberally and reapply it any time it might be weakened by water or sweat.
FDA requirements for sunscreen labeling
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has implemented new requirements for sunscreen testing and labeling to better reflect what the lotions can and cannot do. As a result:
- Sunscreen labels can no longer claim to be "waterproof," "sweat proof" or a "sunblock," because they all wash or rub off, and none acts as a complete block against ultraviolet rays
- "Water resistant" is acceptable, as long as the label states how long the sunscreen is effective while swimming or sweating (either 40 or 80 minutes)
- Before claiming a sunscreen will offer protection for more than 2 hours without reapplying, companies will have to submit data to the FDA for approval
Broad spectrum prevention
Any product touting “broad spectrum” must meet the FDA’s standard. Labels that tout broad-spectrum prevention mean that a sunscreen or moisturizer defends skin against two types of UV radiation – UVA and UVB. While the sun’s UVB rays mostly burn skin, UVA radiation pierces it more deeply, wrinkling and aging it. Both types of UV radiation can cause skin cancer.
A broad spectrum plus a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher will decrease the risk of skin cancer and skin damage when combined with other steps, like limiting time in the sun and wearing long-sleeved pants and shirts, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. Products without broad-spectrum protection, or those that are broad-spectrum with an SPF lower than 15, can only claim to help prevent sunburn.
The role of SPF
An SPF number indicates how much longer it would take you to burn from UVB rays than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. According to the American Cancer Society, SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 filters out about 97% and SPF 50 filters out about 98%. No sunscreen shields you completely.
Even if you diligently avoid the sun, cover yourself in sunscreen and wear protective clothing, you still need to watch for any signs that could indicate trouble. When skin cancer is caught early, the chances of recovery are often improved.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends checking your entire body every month. Pay special attention to the most vulnerable areas – ears, face, neck, arms and hands – and monitor any moles. If spots or moles are bleeding, itching, growing or changing shape or color, see a dermatologist. Otherwise, schedule a skin exam annually.