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The sunscreen factor: New guidelines set for sun protection products

Monday, August 1, 2011

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What's the largest organ of the human body? It's not the brain, the heart or the lungs. It's our skin, and many people unknowingly put it at risk, especially in the summer, with improper use of sunscreen and other protection.

Yes, sunscreen labels can be a jumble of letters and claims to reduce skin cancer risk or aging, but the Food and Drug Administration has issued new rules for sunscreen companies to clear up some of that confusion.

Under the new guidelines, all sunscreens will have to filter out ultraviolet A rays and ultraviolet B rays to carry the "broad spectrum" label and support claims about reducing cancer risks and skin damage. If a product doesn't protect against both, or the SPF is below 15, it has to carry a warning: "This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."

Those rules don't take effect until next summer, however. In the meantime, Dr. Chuck Moon, dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology in Cape Girardeau, says it's important to look for the products that already carry the broad spectrum label.

For the best protection, "look for products with titanium oxide or zinc oxide," Moon says. "They're inert; they're not chemicals, they're metals."

And when it comes to choosing which SPF to use, Moon says there's no need to go for the highest number on the shelf. "SPF 15 or SPF 30 is really all you need," he says.

More important than the SPF is how often you reapply it, and Moon says that varies from person to person and their activities.

"If you're at the pool," he says, "probably every hour to two hours because it's washing off."

He says a fair-skinned redhead will need to reapply more frequently than someone with American Indian genes, but a good rule of thumb is to reapply sunscreen every hour and a half during intense sun exposure. Moon also suggests wearing protective clothing, as well as a broad-brimmed hat to protect the nose and ears.

And if you've spent years baking in the sun without a thought to sunscreen, Moon says there are some steps to take now to protect your skin.

"Some people have actinic keratosis, crusty precancerous growths, and prescription medicines can be used to reverse them," he says. "Retin-A can help signs of photo damage, also."

Moon says it's important to remember that most skin cancer can be treated if caught early. Nonhealing sores that look like pimples or red, scaly rashes can be signs of basal cell carcinomas or squamous cell carcinomas, respectively. He also suggests following the ABCDs of malignant melanomas, checking for moles that have an asymmetrical shape, border irregularity, color variance and diameter that's changing.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

The FDA's new sunscreen rules will:

Prohibit sunscreen marketing claims like "waterproof" and "sweatproof," which the agency said "are exaggerations of performance." Water-resistant claims will be allowed, but companies must explain how much time consumers can get the same benefit while swimming or sweating.

Cap the highest SPF value at 50, unless companies can provide results of further testing that support a higher number.

Require that manufacturers phase out a four-star system currently used by some companies to rate UVA protection.


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