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New Labeling Rules Shed Light on Sunscreen Effectiveness


The federal government issued new sunscreen regulations Tuesday — just in time for summertime beach bumming, but 33 years overdue.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first began working on the sunscreen regulations back in 1978, and revised its proposal in 1999 and again in 2007, but the changes were never adopted. The new rules will finally go into effect in 2012, giving sunscreen labels a boost in clarity and accuracy.

For starters, manufacturers can market their products as “broad spectrum” only if they protect against both UVB rays (which cause sunburn) and UVA rays (which penetrate skin cells more deeply and are thus more strongly linked to cancer). Both types of harmful ultraviolet radiation contribute to premature aging, eye damage, weakened immune systems and cancerous DNA mutations.

In short, for any sunscreen that is not broad spectrum or that has a sun protection factor, or SPF, below 15, the label can only advertise protection against sunburn — not skin cancer or early skin aging.

The regulations also limit SPF claims to “50+,” since the FDA has not found evidence of enhanced sun protection for SPF greater than 50. In fact, sunscreens with excessively high SPF may expose consumers to unnecessary quantities of chemicals while providing no additional benefits.

new sunscreen labeling

And sunscreens can no longer be called “sunblock,” nor can they claim to be “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” Proper labeling will say “water resistant,” with a suggested time limit — of no more than two hours — before reapplication.

Coupled with the sunscreen regulations is a comprehensive consumer-directed campaign to reduce skin cancers, the most deadly of which is melanoma. As a first line of defense, the FDA recommends limiting sun exposure by wearing protective clothing (darker is better) and staying indoors or in the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The FDA regulations come at a time when skin cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the U.S. — beating out breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 2 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year; one in five people will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime.

The good news is that starting this summer and by mid-2012, consumers will have more concrete information about how to protect themselves from the sun.

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