Sunscreen label changes expected, but not before summer

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

WASHINGTON -- A clearer, more meaningful standard for sunscreen labels is coming soon to a lotion near you, but not in time for the summer beach season that kicked off Memorial Day weekend.

The Food and Drug Administration is working to finish new labeling rules that have been years in the making but will not be implemented before October.

The current labeling system for sunscreen products is problematical, concedes Dr. James Spencer, spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. But as millions throng to the beaches, he counsels: "Sunscreen is the best you can do for now, and we're working on better."

The idea behind the new federal regulations is to make labels less confusing, so consumers know exactly what kind of protection they're getting.

"I do feel the labeling on current sunscreens is a bit confusing," said Cape Girardeau dermatologist Dr. Charles Moon in an e-mail interview. "We all know, the higher the [SPF] number, then the more protection we receive from getting a sunburn, which is caused by the UVB ray. ... [The label] does not, however, tell us anything about UVA protection, which also can contribute to skin cancer development."

Most sunscreens on the market boast "broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection." There's a standard test to determine protection from the ultraviolet-B rays that cause sunburn -- the familiar SPF rankings that tell people how long they can stay out in the sun before a burn.

But there is not a standard test to check protection from ultraviolet-A rays, the ones linked to causing cancer and wrinkles.

"Currently shoppers will not know how much UVA protection they are getting unless they can interpret the ingredients, actually sun-blocking ingredients, on the back labels," said Moon, who practices at Advanced Dermatology of Southeast Missouri PC. He recommends consumers look for titanium dioxide and zinc oxide on the back of the bottle.

The rules expected this fall would make it easier, with a standard testing protocol and a proposed four-star UVA rating system. It would spell out the protection level as "low," "medium," "high" or "highest" -- with one star representing low UVA protection and four the highest protection available.

In the meantime, Spencer, a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Fla., said people need to be sure to slather on plenty of sunscreen -- a shot glass full of lotion for adults. Most people only put on about 25 to 50 percent of the lotion they need to protect them, he said.

Moon said an SPF 30 will do the trick, but if a person is sweating or swimming that day, reapply every one to two hours.

"Just putting an SPF 90 on for the day is not enough," he said. "You need to reapply."

The four-star rating system for UVA protection was first proposed in 2007.

The FDA's Dr. Matthew Holman says the agency received more than 3,000 comments in response to the UVA-rating system, with many for and against.

The opposition said consumers will still find the label confusing because of the two separate rating systems, a numerical SPF rating for UVB and a four-star rating for UVA protection.

Holman, deputy director at FDA's division of nonprescription regulation development, said the agency is still evaluating the comments. He would not say if the final rule would adopt the four-star system.

The new rules, as proposed, would also cap the highest SPF value at 50. Anything above that would be labeled "50 plus."

Holman says it is not clear there's an accurate test to prove sun protection factor above 50.

Southeast Missourian features editor Chris Harris contributed to this report.

Sunscreen tips

* Apply sunscreen a half-hour before going outside. It takes that long to start working.

* Reapply every few hours, especially if swimming or playing sports.

* Limit exposure during the peak UV hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

* Buy a product with SPF 30 for your lips.

* Don't double up on products by using a sunblock with insect repellant. Sunscreens should be applied liberally every two hours, but bug spray should be applied sparingly every six hours.

* Use a facial sunblock. Even if your makeup has an SPF, it has limits.

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