Change is good. Even when it means a little confusion and bewilderment at first; overall, there is some benefit to change. So last year, when the FDA approved a new sunscreen labeling system/monograph, the first real change since 1999, everybody groaned (even though we all tell ourselves “change is good”). But fear not! These new labels are actually fairly simple to navigate, make purchasing sunscreen easier, and come with handy-dandy warning labels just in case you don’t care about all the other stuff.
As of December 17, 2012, the FDA mandated that all sunscreen companies must comply with its new monograph. Basically, the monograph exists of six parts:
1) the label must accurately reflect all test results,
2) the maximum SPF value is 50+ (SPF values above 50 cannot be accurately measured or tested, and studies have not shown that an SPF level above 50 provides extra benefit),
3) “broad spectrum” labeled product must protect against UVA and UVB radiation,
4) the label cannot claim “water-proof” or “sweat-proof”, may not refer to itself as a sunblock, and cannot claim “instant protection” or protection over 2 hours (unless there is specific studies proving these claims),
5) if a sunscreen does claim “water resistance” the label must include the time period for which the product will provide protection while exposed to water or sweat (either 40 or 80 minutes),
6) the active ingredients included in the sunscreen must be listed with dosage form and strength (this is a combination of ingredients usually containing azobenzone).
Thankfully, in addition to these parameters, the FDA has also insisted that products include a “warning label” much like that found on cigarette packaging. For products that are not broad spectrum, or are broad spectrum with an SPF between 2 to 14, a warning will appear saying, and I quote from the FDA consumer site, “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging,” (just in case you were thinking about buying a low SPF containing product, think again). Those products that are broad spectrum with an SPF of 15 or higher (the American Academy of Dermatology recommends the sweet spot as being SPF 30 to 50) will read, and I quote directly from my current bottle of sunscreen, “If used as directed with other sun protection measures, decreases the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun.”
However, not only does the new sunscreen monograph have clear and accurate labeling regarding SPF protection, UVA defense, water resistance and decreasing skin cancer/sun-related aging; it also comes with instructions! Never before have I had such clear directions as to application and measures I can take to further protect myself from sun damage. Most sunscreens do not take effect immediately and must therefore be applied liberally about 15 to 20 minutes before stepping outside. In addition, reapplication of sunscreen should take place after swimming, sweating, toweling dry and at least every 2 hours regardless of the circumstances. Furthermore, wearing sun protective clothing (hats, sunglasses, specialty clothing from brands like Solumbra) and decreasing sun exposure during peak hours (10 a.m.- 2 p.m.) are all suggestions included in the new labels. Clearly the FDA is taking this whole “increased incidence in skin cancer thing” very seriously!
I, for one, am glad that the real threat of skin cancer has risen in the public’s eye. For many years sun-bathing on the beach and tanning in a salon were considered the height of trendy (all the kids were doing it!). With increased mindfulness, remember May was “Skin Cancer Awareness Month”, I think this may be a turning point in which society bands together to fight a growing, but also preventable, cause of death. Of course the statistics in this matter are slightly skewed due to all the Baby Boomers who baked in the sun during their twenties, (even my Dad, who knows I’m a stickler for the sunscreen, will guiltily ‘fess up that he indulged in the sun during his younger days). Nevertheless, if all the twenty-year-olds of my generation would swear off the ever-popular tan in exchange for the really pretty bottle of sunscreen (I mean some of the designer bottles these days are looking really sexy), I think we may just get this “skin-cancer-thing” beat one day.
Margit Lai Wun Juhasz
Mount Sinai Medical Student