Monday Medical: Demystifying sunscreen

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I am a former sun worshipper. When I was in high school, I spent many days during summer vacation on a lounge chair covered in tanning oil at Blackhawk Lake, the nearest beach to my hometown in Wisconsin. I loved the sun, and I loved my tan.

Times definitely have changed. Now, I am chasing down my daughters and slathering them in sunscreen, making sure they have sun hats, trying to prevent them from burning, freckling or even tanning. And yes, I set the example and follow the rules. In this quest to protect my family from skin cancer, I have studied many sunscreen products and labels.

The good news is that reading sunscreen labels should be less daunting this summer. In an effort to prevent skin cancer and educate consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration developed new regulations for the labeling of sunscreen products. The regulations apply to over-the-counter products containing sunscreen, including lip balms and makeup with SPF.

According to the FDA website, one of the most important requirements is the testing and labeling that identifies sunscreens that are “broad spectrum,” meaning they offer protection against UVB and UVA rays. All sunscreen products offer protection against UVB rays, which are the primary cause of sunburn. Both UVB and UVA rays contribute to sun-induced skin cancer and premature skin aging.

Based on scientific studies, the FDA has determined that broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15 can help reduce the risk of sun-induced skin cancer and premature skin aging when used with sun protective measures.

Here is a summary of the changes you will see on sunscreen product labels:

■ SPF

You will no longer see an SPF higher than 50-plus. Current research has shown there is not a significant level of added protection for sunscreens with SPF numbers higher than 50. Until further research is completed, 50-plus is the upper limit.

■ Word search

The words “sunblock,” “waterproof,” “sweatproof” and “instant protection” have been removed from the sunscreen label vocabulary. No product can block the sun completely. All products eventually wash off or lose their effectiveness with time. These terms were found to be misleading to consumers.

Water resistant claims now must be tested and include the duration for the stated SPF to be effective while swimming or sweating. The only two options you will see on the labels are 40 and 80 minutes. Additionally, manufacturers cannot state that a sunscreen is effective for more than two hours without special approval from the FDA. Re-applying sunscreen is essential for protection.

■ Risk and warnings

Only products with broad-spectrum protection and an SPF of 15 or higher will be allowed to claim to help reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when used as directed.

A warning message now will appear on sunscreens that have an SPF lower than 15, touting the dangers of skin cancer and early skin aging. Products no longer will get away with disguising themselves as skin cancer protection just because they have a little SPF.

Active ingredients now must be included on the Drug Facts label along with their potency. If you don’t know what they are, look them up.

With all of these changes, what should you look for on the label? The American Academy of Dermatology recommends these three things: broad spectrum, SPF of 30 or higher and water resistant.

When you find a product you like, stick with it. Use it liberally and remember that sunscreen should be just one of the tools you use to protect yourself. Limit your time in the sun at midday when rays are most intense (especially at altitude). Seek shade when you can and wear clothing to protect your skin, including long sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.

Heather Rose is a wellness specialist at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at heather.rose @yvmc.org.

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