Making Sense of Sunscreen Label Confusion

By: Kristen Guilfoos
By: Kristen Guilfoos

Read any good sunscreen labels lately? If so, you'll notice they're getting a makeover, but not all of the manufacturers are rolling out the new versions right away, leaving consumers caught in the middle.

We sat down with a local dermatologist to find out what you need to know.

Picking the perfect sunscreen should be as easy as counting to three; just three little letters: SPF, UVA and UVB. But ask many shoppers and they'll tell you not so fast.

For the past three decades, sunscreen labels have looked the same; but now, in hopes of easing some of that confusion, the FDA is "rocking the Banana Boat" by making some big changes.

The first change will involve saying goodbye to the words sweat proof and waterproof. According to Dermatologist Dr. Katrina Smith, "This is going to be replaced by the term water resistant. And they'll have to specify whether they're water resistant to 40 minutes or to 80 minutes."

Next, you'll see the words "broad spectrum" and Dr. Smith says not to buy any sunscreen without it. "This covers both UVA and UVB rays." UVA rays are the ones you can thank for premature aging; UVB rays are responsible for that lovely shade of lobster.

Next up, nothing will be labeled higher than SPF 50 because there's no proof there's any added benefit.

SPF 15 blocks out 94% of the sun's rays; SPF 30 bumps that up to 97% and SPF 50 protects you from 98% of them. You are encouraged to buy sunscreen with an SPF of 30 of higher" says Smith.

Now that you know which sunscreen to choose, there's the issue of how much of it you're supposed to put on. "The average person applies 25 to 50 percent of what they actually should apply" says Smith.

So how much sunscreen do you need? More than you probably think; in fact, an entire shot glass worth. So if you're out in the sun swimming all day, you're going to need a lot of applications."

The FDA originally wanted to make all sunscreen manufacturers roll out the new labels this summer, but recently they pushed back the deadline to December.

Still, some are already putting out the new bottles, so you'll need to look closely at each one before buying it.


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