Expert Answers on New Sunscreen Guidelines

Melanie Palm, MD, Member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery
Melanie Palm, MD, Member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery

The FDA's establishment of new measures regarding sunscreens is designed to help protect consumers. The measures include new testing for sunscreens and new labeling rules; compliance will be required by manufacturers of most over-the-counter sunscreen products by December 17th, 2012. To better understand sunscreen under the new guidelines, LoveToKnow turned to board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Melanie Palm, MD, member of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, for answers.

What to Look for on New Labels

LoveToKnow (LTK): With the new FDA regulations, consumers may be worried or confused about choosing sunscreen. How can they be sure they are choosing sunscreen that offers adequate and appropriate protection for their needs?

Dr. Palm: There are two important things to look for:

  • That the sunscreen is "broad-spectrum," meaning that it covers both UVA and UVB rays.
  • That the SPF is sufficient. The FDA recommends a Sun Protection Factor of 15; many dermatologists including myself, prefer at least 30 SPF.

LTK: Many people just buy sunscreen according to the SPF level. Under the new guidelines, is it more important consumers purchase a sunscreen labeled broad-spectrum?

Dr. Palm: These labels mean different things. SPF refers to the level of UVB protection. Broad-spectrum coverage refers to the sunscreen's ability to protect against both UVA and UVB. Both are important, and understanding the difference is crucial to selecting an adequate sunscreen.

Identifying Sunscreen Labeled Under New Guidelines

LTK: How will consumers be able to tell a sunscreen that was labeled according to the new FDA regulations?

Dr. Palm: These are relatively subtle changes in nomenclature -- the way of describing the sunscreens. "Waterproof" is gone, replaced by "water resistant" and "very water resistant". "Broad-spectrum" will mean coverage against both UVA and UVB.

Sunscreen Labeled Before New Guidelines

reading product label

LTK: Many budget-conscious consumers purchase sunscreen at discount and closeout stores. After the FDA deadline, will these places still be able to carry sunscreen with the old labels? If so, what should consumers look for in the labeling to be best protected?

Dr. Palm: My understanding is that these products can still be displayed as long as they are not expired. Products manufactured after the new FDA rule is in place will have to abide by the new rules. Consumers should look for labels stating both UVA and UVB coverage and these key ingredients for adequate UVA coverage:

  • Zinc oxide
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Mexoryl
  • Avobenzone (oxybenzone)

An SPF of 30 or above should be sought for adequate UVB coverage.

UVA and UVB Protection

LTK: Consumers could also be confused about UVA and UVB protection. Can you briefly explain the difference, and why people need to be protected from both kinds of rays?

Dr. Palm: UVA and UVB cover different wavelengths of the ultraviolet spectrum of light radiation.

  • UVA are longer wavelengths (340-400 nm). I usually tell patients that the "A" in UVA stands for "Aging." UVA can cause skin aging effects related to significant sun exposure and UV exposure. These include sun spots, pigmentation, and wrinkling related to sun exposure. UVA has been related to some melanomas.
  • UVB are shorter wavelengths (290-320 nm). UVB is blocked by window glass, but UVA is not. The "B" in UVB can bring to mind "Burning." UVB is related to the red sunburn response seen after significant sun exposure. UVB is strongly related to the formation of nonmelanoma skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Because both wavelengths have carcinogenic potential, a broad band spectrum sunscreen protecting against UVA and UVB is necessary.

Understanding Water Resistant Sunscreen

LTK: The new rules won't allow sunscreen to be labeled "waterproof," only "water resistant." How long does a sunscreen, even one labeled "water resistant," really last?

Dr. Palm: Water resistant is defined as sunscreen effective for at least 40 minutes of activity in the water. Very water resistant allows for 80 minutes. Sunscreens are strictly tested to be awarded this designation. However, many dermatologists encourage patients to reapply sunscreens after heavy activity including water sports. At a minimum, most dermatologists recommend reapplication every hour and one-half to two hours when outside.

Further Tips on Selecting Sunscreen

applying sunscreen

LTK: Do you have any other tips on what individuals should consider when it comes to purchasing their sunscreen protection?

Dr. Palm:

  • Choose a formulation you will use. If a product is thick and a body area needing to be covered is hair-bearing, this does not make for a good outcome.
  • Apply sunscreen evenly and liberally.
  • Rub in spray-on products.
  • Furthermore, the vast majority of consumers under-apply sunscreen. A full ounce should be applied to the body with each application (size of a shot glass). This means a typical bottle of sunscreen should only last 4 applications.

Protecting Your Skin

For more information, visit the official FDA website, which offers consumer updates (also available via email alerts) on the latest information. They also offer a PDF sunscreen labeling diagram and a Q & A on the new sunscreen regulations.

Consumers can also visit the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery website for a wealth of information, including skin cancer information and where to find free skin cancer screenings.

About Melanie Palm, MD

Dr. Melanie Palm is a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon and founder of Art of Skin MD, a practice devoted to dermatologic care. The mission of the practice is offering a full range of skin care with a focus on technology, patient safety, and results. In addition, Dr. Palm is assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego, and staff physician at Scripps Encinitas Memorial Hospital. Her accomplishments also include authoring medical articles and book chapters, serving various leadership roles in the medical community, and community involvement. Dr. Palm has received the Patients' Choice and Compassionate Doctor Awards for her work in the community, including skin cancer screenings. For more about Dr. Palm, please visit www.artofskinmd.com.

Expert Answers on New Sunscreen Guidelines