Health Department

Sunscreen Safety

Sunscreen Safety
By Larry D. Jones, MPH, Health Director

Did you ever wonder what all those letters and names mean on your sunscreen bottles? Like “broad-spectrum,” “UVA,” UVB,” “SPF,” and “water resistant?” Well, it turns out they hold very important information for anyone who is exposed to the sun.

While anyone can get a sunburn if exposed long enough, it is usually in the warm months that we spend more time outside when the sun is the strongest. Ultraviolet radiation is sun rays that cause sunburns and many skin cancers. The two types most affecting us are ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB), which can lead to sunburn, skin damage, skin aging, and skin cancer.

In December 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new rules for sunscreen labeling to make it easier to identify sunscreens that offer safe, effective protection from the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Sunscreens may be labeled “broad-spectrum” if they provide protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. Here is a list of the new rules:

  • Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher can be labeled to offer protection against skin cancer if used as directed with other sun protection measures.
  • Broad-spectrum sunscreens with SPFs of 2-14 must display a warning that the product has not been shown to help prevent skin cancer or early skin aging.
  • The terms “sunblock,” “sweat-proof,” and “waterproof” are no longer allowed on sunscreen labels.
  • Sunscreens may claim to be water-resistant; however, the label must specify the length of protection (40 or 80 minutes) during swimming or sweating. Sunscreens that are not water-resistant must instruct consumers to use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.
  • A company cannot claim that its sunscreen products provide sun protection for more than two hours without submitting test results as proof.

When you are looking for a sunscreen product, you will want protection from both UVA and UVB radiation. Therefore, choose a bottle labeled “broad-spectrum protection.”

The next thing you need to consider is the sun protection factor (SPF). SPF is for UVB rays only. Most sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher do an excellent job of protecting against UVB. Most dermatologists recommend an SPF of 30 or 45 and advise that anything more than 50 is negligibly higher in protection.

The last thing to check when buying sunscreen products is the water resistance factor. This is the amount of time a sunscreen is effective due to water exposure or sweating. Directions on the bottle should tell you how often to re-apply your lotion.

If you spend a lot of time in the water or sweating outdoors, you will need to re-apply more often. Re-applying lotion is one thing that people often forget about. Remember to reapply sunscreen frequently when outdoors and remember to put lotion on tips of ears, as well as thinning scalps and balding areas of the head.

Sun protection is essential to skin cancer prevention – about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a complete sun protection regimen that includes not only sunscreen use, but also seeking shade, covering up with light weight clothing, wearing wide-brimmed hats, and UV-blocking sunglasses. Also, it is best to avoid direct sunlight during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. if possible. Lastly, remember that even though the sun may be behind clouds, those UVA and UVB rays can still penetrate and cause sun burn and skin damage.