New sunscreen labels offer better information
DEAR DOCTOR K:
Sunscreen labels have changed since I stocked up last year. What should I look for on the new labels?
Sunscreen products do look different than they have in the past, as new rules for labels are now in effect. These new rules, mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have made sunscreen labels more informative and less misleading.
Sunlight exposes your skin to ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVA rays age and wrinkle skin; UVB rays cause sunburn. Both contribute to skin cancer. So you want to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB.
Sunscreens vary in their protection against UVA and UVB. The best protection is "broad spectrum protection," which filters out much of the UVA and UVB. Under the new FDA rules, if a label says "broad spectrum," the product must pass tests proving that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Also under the new rules, the term "sunblock" is no longer allowed, because none of these products block all of the sun's rays. "Waterproof" is also banned, because water does rinse off some of the creams. It's just a matter of degree. You want creams that are least likely to wash off when you go into the water. Some creams fit the bill; under the new rules they are called "water-resistant." This term must be accompanied by a set time for reapplication.
Another big change concerns SPF, or sun protection factor. SPF is a measurement of how much longer it takes for your skin to turn red from the sun after applying the sunscreen. Sunscreen with an SPF of less than 15 for both UVA and UVB must now carry a warning that it only reduces your risk of sunburn, and does not reduce your risk of either skin cancer or early skin aging.
When you go out in the sun, you want to reduce your risk of sunburn, early skin aging and skin cancer -- not just one or two of them, but all of them. Therefore, to reduce your risk of skin cancer and early aging, I recommend you use a sunscreen with the following features:
-- Broad spectrum protection
-- SPF of 30 or higher
-- Water-resistant for up to 40 or 80 minutes
Once you buy the right sunscreen, make sure to apply it properly:
-- Apply sunscreen before you go out.
-- Apply enough and reapply frequently. Use 1 ounce of sunscreen (a shot glass full) to cover your body and face.
-- Reapply sunscreen immediately after swimming or heavy sweating.
-- Apply every two hours even if you don't get in the water or sweat.
I was raised in Southern California in the years before we understood all the damage the sun could do to your skin. Everyone "worked on their tan," including me. Several skin cancers later, I wish we had then the kind of potent sunscreens we have today.
(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. To send questions, go to AskDoctorK.com, or write: Ask Doctor K, 10 Shattuck St., Second Floor, Boston, MA 02115.)
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