A guide to make choosing sunscreen lotions easy
Here is what’s new in skin protection, backed by test results.
Published: June 13, 2012 08:18PM
Updated: June 13, 2012 06:31PM
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New sunscreen lables can help you avoid burns, furrows and cancer — and even save you money. Credit: Getty Images

Once upon a time, picking the right bottle of sunscreen was more like a guessing game than an informed consumer choice. Did you need an SPF of 100+, or would SPF 15 suffice? Generic or brand name? Would a $5 product cut it, or did you have to spend five times that much? And just what were those unpronounceable ingredients?

New FDA-mandated labels are required on almost all sunscreens by Monday. “The packages will be more about test results and less about marketing,” said an enthusiastic Dr. Theresa Pacheco, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Colorado.

Here’s Good Housekeeping’s guide to what’s new.

Sensible protection: The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) indicates a product’s effectiveness against sunburn-causing UVB rays. If a bare-skinned, fair person reddens in four minutes, an SPF 30 ups that time to 120 minutes (the simple math, 4 x 30 = 120). The ratings have been around for decades, but in recent years, there’s been a lot of action on the high end, with an SPF of 70 hitting the market in 2007 and an SPF of 100+ becoming available in 2009.

What’s new: No more “sunblock” claims. There is no total sunblock. If you see such a claim, now considered “false or misleading” by the FDA, it’s either an old product or an old packaging, or it could be on a product from a smaller company. They have been granted an extra year to make the label changes.

Look for: An SPF of 30. That should be plenty for most people outdoors, although though some dermatologists advise that patients who have had skin cancer or other conditions go with a higher SPF. You will need to reapply every two hours.

Real aging protection: For protection against skin cancer and damage that leads to wrinkles and age spots, you need a sunscreen that also shields against UVA rays. These reach deeper layers of your skin, disrupting its immune system and causing genetic changes that can lead to cancer.

What’s new: Labels that tell you if you’re getting adequate UVA protection. The key words are “broad spectrum.” Before this year, that claim meant only that the product contained an ingredient that provided some UVA protection. Now it tells you that the sunscreen has been tested to prove it works against UVA rays.

“Previously, we didn’t have enough research to establish an accurate test,” said FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess. “Now we do.”

Look for: “Broad spectrum” and an SPF of at least 15. A broad-spectrum SPF 30 product must have more UVA protection working in tandem with SPF, so a broad-spectrum SPF 30 product must have more UVA protection than a broad-spectrum 15 one. Below SPF 15, no product can claim to protect against cancer or early aging.

Also, check out the now-required drug facts box. Broad-spectrum sunscreens that are SPF 15 and higher get bragging rights — “If used as directed with other sun-protection measures, this product decreases the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun.” Those that don’t meet the standard’s labels must read, “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”