“Summer is approaching and I’m confused about the new sunscreen rules!”
Here are your questions; ANSWERED!
Written by Tara Templeton, April 2013
After over 30 years of performing and reviewing studies, going back-and-forth, and quite a bit of confusion, the FDA has finally begun implementing their ruling on sunscreens… By the end of 2013, all of the new guidelines for sunscreen products will have taken full effect. As a skincare professional, sun protection is something I stress to all of my clients… Read on to set the record straight!
So after all this hype about the “sunscreen rules changing”, what’s really happened? Not much, YET; right now, most of the SPF displays in stores still look the same to me, boasting products with outrageous claims like “contains SPF 100+” and “waterproof”. WTF?!?! Why can’t we just buy a tube of the white stuff and call it a day, like we used to? Well, for one thing, we now have more information about sun protection and how the sun’s rays interact with the skin. Here’s a mini-lesson, then we’ll get into the “rules” imposed by the FDA.
“What is SPF?” SPF stands for “sun protection factor”. There have been rumors that the term “SPF” is misleading, as it doesn’t provide full protection from the sun (SPF values are only a measure of UVB protection; there is not yet a test to measure the amount of UVA protection in a sunscreen), and may make people think they are more protected than they actually are. For now, the term “SPF” is sticking around to show the measure of protection against UVB rays.
“All this talk about UV rays confuses me” UV stands for ultraviolet; UV rays are the types of sun exposure that humans experience. In skincare school, we learned the “ABC’s” of sun damage – UVA rays contribute to AGING, UVB rays contribute to BURNING, and UVC rays cause cancer (although UVC rays can hardly enter the earth’s atmosphere, it is possible to be exposed minimally). All UV rays contribute to skin cancer, and none of them are very good! While UVB rays do help your body create Vitamin D (the “sunshine” vitamin), you still need protection.
“What is Broad-Spectrum?” Broad spectrum means that the sunscreen will help to protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Some sunscreens only protect against UVB rays to prevent burning (measured by SPF value). Now, companies are realizing the importance of UVA protection (to prevent the signs of aging and skin cancer), and labeling their products to match the type and amount of protection.
“Sunblock” vs. “Sunscreen” The only thing that can truly be a “sunblock” would be an impenetrable wall of something. Not made out of a cream or oil. The closest you can get to “blocking” the sun from your skin is to directly apply zinc oxide and not rub it in – think surfer white-nose, but all over your body. But don’t worry; there are still many ways you can protect yourself without turning into a white worm! :)
“So if there’s not a real sunblock out there, how am I supposed to be safe under the sun?” No one is completely safe from anything, ever, but you can take several precautions. Humans were made to be outside, so the sun is naturally good for us in moderation (think, Vitamin D). Just make sure that you re-apply sunscreen every two hours you’re outside, even if you’re not sweating, getting wet, or in the direct sunlight; sun even penetrates clouds! And follow the general directions for sun protection. You’ll find them here!
“Can sunscreen really be waterproof?” Nothing that you squeeze out of a bottle onto your skin can be completely waterproof. Common sense (and baths) tells you that after applying a cream or anything wet, sticky, gooey, or creamy, you can wet your skin, rub it, and it will eventually come off. So how could sunscreen be different? (It’s not). Believe what you read on the bottle, and you’re gonna get burned! Re-application of sunscreen is VITAL to receive the protection you need. Even if it says “water-resistant” or “sweat-proof”, it’s still just marketing poop, and you need to follow your own directions. Don’t rub your skin while swimming and you’ll stay protected in the water for 40-80 minutes (it should tell you on the bottle; this is part of the new ruling by the FDA). Regardless, you must reapply after getting wet, sweating, and/or toweling off; and try not to rub your face too much, as it will wipe the protection off your most sensitive area.
“What sunscreens do you recommend?” I look for anything containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient(s). These are known to skincare professionals as “physical sunscreens”, as they are not absorbed into your skin – they simply sit on top and act as a barrier, reflecting the sun’s rays away from the skin. Physical sunscreens won’t irritate the skin, as they aren’t absorbed and are made of natural ingredients. In the past, physical sunscreens were very thick and would leave a white film on the skin – now, the ingredients have been “micronized” to be more esthetically pleasing while still providing the best sun protection. Ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate are known as “chemical sunscreens” and interact with your skin cells to absorb the sun’s rays before they can incur damage. These ingredients have the potential to cause irritation. However, I feel the need to note that there ARE ingredients formulated as chemical sunscreens which are supposedly more stable and non-irritating; the proof is in the bottle (even I have used products containing chemical sunscreens without any issues). While I don’t want to bash chemical sunscreens, in my opinion, it’s still best to use a product containing physical sunscreen (like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide), when possible, especially on babies and children. Additionally, many sunscreens now contain vitamins and anti-oxidants which help fortify the sun protection; anything containing anti-oxidants is good! Check out EWG’s Skin Deep cosmetics database.
“Can I use the same sunscreen on my face as I do on my body?” I say, “NO!” The skin on your face, hands, feet, and chest is much more thin and sensitive than the skin on the rest of your body. Use a sunscreen specifically labeled for your face, and make sure zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide are the active ingredients, as others may be irritating.
“What about makeup and cosmetics containing sunscreen? Are they okay, and how should I use them?” It’s great to wear a makeup containing sunscreen, especially because most women will apply every day no matter what. However, you still need to reapply after two hours in the sun. Your morning routine should be something like this: first serum/moisturizer, then sunscreen, then makeup. Layering your products is the best thing for the skin on your face; the general rule in skincare is to apply products in order of thickness (ie more watery products like serums go first, then creams, and makeup always last).
“What about my baby? How do I protect my infant/toddler?” Professionals have suggested keeping babies under the age of 6 months as protected as possible without sunscreen (i.e. hats, long sleeves, umbrellas, etc.). They even make clothes with SPF! If you’ll be in the sun for a while, it’s okay to apply a little sunscreen containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, but wipe it off once you get inside. Babies and children over 6 months should wear SPF with titanium or zinc, as their skin is more sensitive, and you don’t want the stronger chemical sunscreens being absorbed into your sweet child’s baby skin! For specific product recommendations and reviews, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a wonderful website full of resources on how to protect your family from the sun, as well as a huge database full of product reviews… (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/)
“I have ethnic/dark/super-tan skin and don’t get sunburned. Do I still have to wear SPF?” YES! Your skin contains more pigment than people with fair skin, and you still need to wear sunscreen every day! Even if you can’t see any sunburn, the sun is still inflicting damage on your skin; you’re still prone to skin cancer and wrinkles.
“What are the new rules, exactly? How will they affect me?” This question is best answered using bullet points:
- “Broad Spectrum” labeling; in order for a company to label their sunscreen as “broad spectrum”, the product must pass the FDA’s broad spectrum test procedure, which confirms that the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
- For broad spectrum sunscreens, the SPF indicates the amount or degree of overall protection from UVB rays. If a sunscreen’s label says that it is Broad Spectrum, containing SPF 15 or higher, then that product will provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and is allowed to claim additional uses/benefits (see next bullet point).
- A broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.
- Any sunscreen with an SPF value between 2 and 14 can only claim to help prevent sunburn.
- There will be nothing higher than SPF 50. If the company claims the sunscreen has an SPF of higher than 50, it will be labeled as SPF 50+. There are no studies that prove anything higher than SPF 50 is more effective than lower SPF values.
- Companies cannot label their sunscreen as “waterproof”, “sweat-proof”, or call their product a “sunblock”. These claims, like I mentioned earlier, are untrue no matter what!
- A label cannot claim that it provides UV protection for longer than two hours without reapplication, nor can it claim that it provides “instant protection”, without submitting supporting data to the FDA and obtaining approval.
- If sunscreen claims to be “water-resistant”, then it must pass a standard test from the FDA, and the label must indicate how long the product will remain effective while wet; the values approved by the FDA are either 40 minutes or 80 minutes, while swimming or sweating. If the sunscreen is NOT water resistant, the label must include directions specifically instructing consumers to use a water resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating, and how often to re-apply (at least every two hours AND immediately after towel drying).
- Drug facts; every product containing SPF (even cosmetics!) must include the standard “Drug Facts” on the label, listing the Active Ingredients (and their percentages) first, followed by a list of the rest of the ingredients in alphabetical order .
- Each label will include specific warnings and directions on how to be safe in the sun.
Basically, if a company wants to sell a sunscreen and label it as such, including words and phrases like SPF, Broad-Spectrum, water-resistant, and anti-aging, their product must pass a test administered by the FDA. In order to be labeled as “broad spectrum”, the test must prove that the product protects the skin against both UVA and UVB rays. Ultimately, sunscreens will be labeled in a different way; all you have to do is find one labeled “broad spectrum” with an SPF between 15 and 50, with active ingredients including titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, and you’ll be fine! Much easier than what the rumors say, right?!
“So now that you’ve pumped me full of information, what the heck am I supposed to do?” I say, just make sure you and your family stay protected. Check your sunscreens for “Broad Spectrum” and an SPF over 15. If they don’t pass the test, go to the store and buy a Broad Spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or more, containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the active ingredients. To apply, make sure you use enough product EVERYWHERE! It generally takes a golf-ball sized dollop of sunscreen to cover an adult’s entire body; or you could use a shot glass to measure. Don’t forget your face, hands, feet, and chest! :) Make sure your men and babies wear sunscreen too.