SPFs aren't the final word on sunscreen effectiveness
SPF has been the magic word with sunscreens. But we now know that SPFs alone do not protect the skin from potentially serious damage. In fact, SPF protects predominately against UVB radiation, which is primarily responsible for sunburns. While UVB rays pose a great cancer risk, what about UVA rays? They’re the ones that can penetrate deep into the skin and cause premature skin aging and skin cancer.
Enter “Broad Spectrum SPF”. This term, approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and endorsed in their 2014 regulations, designates that a sunscreen offers overall protection that covers both UVA and UVB. According to the FDA, “only Broad Spectrum sunscreens with an SPF value of 15 or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures.”
“If used as directed with other sun protection measures” is a key phrase in this declaration. One can’t assume that throwing sunscreen on once and staying in the sun for eight hours without reapplying is going to offer full protection! In fact, the new FDA regulations want claims of sun protection to be quite clear with regards to reapplication. Thus, no claims of sun protection can be made for more than two hours without reapplication.
Now, do we toss all our sunscreens that don’t say Broad Spectrum SPF? Not necessarily . . . something is better than nothing. But we do need to be realistic about what we are putting on our skin and how long we can expose ourselves to the sun while it is on. And other sun protection measures should be taken, including wearing a hat, covering up exposed areas and avoiding the most severe exposure times of the day.
If it is time to stock up on new sunscreen for the season, look at those sunscreens that state on their label “Broad Spectrum SPF 15” or higher. (SPF values between 2 and 14 can only claim to help prevent sunburn.) But don’t be fooled by the words “waterproof,” “sweatproof” and “sunblock” – none of these claims can be made, according to the FDA. And, sunscreens claiming “water resistance” must state if it remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
As for concerns about certain chemicals such as oxybenzone that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) claims is dangerous, the jury is out because no studies have successfully proven this. Most doctors continue to recommend sunscreens with a combination of avobenzone and oxybenzone, both of which protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Some doctors recommend “physical blockers” such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which deflect the rays.
EWG has some noteworthy recommendations, including not using spray sunscreens. Let’s face it, if there is any wind blowing while spraying, how much of it makes it to your skin? And especially with kids squirming while having sunscreen applied, spray sunscreens would surely miss a lot of skin coverage. Likewise sunscreen wipes and powders provide dubious sun protection. Tanning oils even with SPF values are also not recommended.
Check out the FDA’s sunscreen labeling guidelines at FDA Consumer Updates and Consumer Reports Sunscreens Buying Guide.