Before you go shopping for sunscreen this season, here’s a read-up on the new rules. The FDA’s labeling requirements for over-the-counter sunscreen products are expected to take effect this summer, though you may notice that some changes have already taken place. The new regs are designed to help you buy the safest, most effective sunscreen; they apply to cosmetics and moisturizers labeled with SPF values, too. Here’s the lowdown on how to buy the best sunscreen, given the labeling lingo.
Look for the words “broad spectrum” on the label. Broad spectrum means that sunscreen has passed a standardized test indicating that it has UVA protection that is proportional to its UVB protection, according to the FDA website. UVA radiation contributes to tanning and early skin aging and UVB rays cause sunburn. Both UVA radiation and UVB radiation can contribute to skin cancer. You want to safeguard your skin from both, so zone in on the words “broad spectrum.”
Seek out a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to 50+. Non-broad-spectrum sunscreens and those with an SPF of 2 to 14 only protect again sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging. On the label, they can only claim to protect against sunburn, which isn’t good enough. But more SPF isn’t better either. According to the FDA, products with an SPF of greater than 50 haven’t been shown to provide greater protection. That’s why you’ll see that the maximum SPF value on sunscreens is now just labeled “50+.” For the best protection against the sun’s bad rays, look for a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50+.
Buy a water-resistant sunscreen if you’ll be swimming or sweating. No sunscreens are truly “water proof,” “sweatproof,” or can qualify as “sunblock.” With the new regs in effect, you won’t get bogged down by those label terms anymore because they’ve been eliminated. That’s because all sunscreens eventually wash off and sunblock overstates a sunscreen’s effectiveness. But you may see the words “water resistant,” which means that the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. If you’ll be sweating or swimming, definitely get a water-resistant sunscreen. And still, be sure to reapply it—or any sunscreen for that matter—at least every two hours. In fact, water-resistant sunscreens will need to be reapplied more often than that, after swimming or sweating. Read the label and reapply as directed.
In addition to using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and re-applying it frequently, don’t forget to play it smart in the sun by limiting your time, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat whenever you can, too. Check out this great buying advice from Consumer Reports.