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Where Has All The Sunblock Gone?

By Elena Schmidt
Posted On Jul 15, 2016
Where Has All The Sunblock Gone?

Rising temperatures beckon us beach ward, yet sunscreen is not always what it seems. It’s time to get smart about your SPF.

BY Elena Schmidt

Last year, the FDA cried foul on the marketing of “sun protection” products. The crime has been in the vocabulary—specifically the use of the terms “sunblock,” “sweat-proof,” and “waterproof” on packaging. The year 2013 marks the first summer when manufacturers are forced to change their labels to reflect reality.

In a recent FDA Consumer Update, Lydia Velazquez, PharmD in FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development, notes: “Our scientific understanding has grown. We want consumers to understand that not all sunscreens are created equal.”

The FDA claims that these terms imply total protection from the sun and total resistance from moisture, neither of which are accurate. The agency feels that “broad spectrum” sends a clearer message to consumers. Perhaps it does, or perhaps it is just another term along with “SPF” that offers little to no clarification for the average person. According to dermatologist Dr. Neil Sadick, brand recognition is still the primary source of consumer decisions.

“It’s just about marketing,” asserts Dr. Sadick. “All that consumers understand is the SPF [sun protection factor] number, but as you get above fifty or sixty, it gets more controversial.” The FDA agrees that SPF levels above 50 may not carry much value, and have proposed the label “50+” to indicate that message.

For the most part, the higher-equals-better rule holds true when speaking of SPF, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. “The SPF number on a bottle of sunscreen only gives a guide for how much UVB protection the product offers,” according to Dr. Susan Stuart, California dermatologist. “It doesn’t tell you whether or not the product protects from UVA rays.”

UVB rays are responsible for sunburns, and all sunscreens provide this protection. UVB rays may also cause melanoma. UVA rays, on the other hand, cause premature skin aging and can cause melanoma. Only “broad spectrum” sunscreen, with SPF of 15 or higher, provides the added benefit of UVA and UVB protection.

By breaking through the noise of bottles and taglines, consumers can get clear about the issues. Labels remain ambiguous but understanding terms is a great place to start before hitting the checkout line.