How many of you simply must have the strongest sunscreen? How many Americans are paying premium markups for SPF 70, 90 — or higher? Starting next summer in the United States, you will no longer be able to buy any sunscreen with a rating over 50. This is due to last week’s ruling by the FDA, which also has mandated a special “drug label” be put on the back of each package describing specifics such as actual waterproof time and active ingredients. I think this is a positive step for American consumers, as it filters out the marketing hype regarding any SPF over 50. It also catches up with the EU and many other countries, which have already banned any SPF over 50. But first, let’s review the U.S. FDA’s new rules:
Q4. What are the main points of the new Final Rule?
A. The new final rule includes the following requirements:
Broad Spectrum designation. Sunscreens that pass FDA’s broad spectrum test procedure, which measures a product’s UVA protection relative to its UVB protection, may be labeled as “Broad Spectrum SPF [value]” on the front label. For Broad Spectrum sunscreens, SPF values also indicate the amount or magnitude of overall protection. Broad Spectrum SPF products with SPF values higher than 15 provide greater protection and may claim additional uses, as described in the next bullet.
Use claims. Only Broad Spectrum sunscreens with an SPF value of 15 or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures. Non-Broad Spectrum sunscreens and Broad Spectrum sunscreens with an SPF value between 2 and 14 can only claim to help prevent sunburn.
“Waterproof, “sweatproof” or “sunblock” claims. Manufacturers cannot label sunscreens as “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” or identify their products as “sunblocks,” because these claims overstate their effectiveness. Sunscreens also cannot claim to provide sun protection for more than 2 hours without reapplication or to provide protection immediately after application (for example– “instant protection”) without submitting data to support these claims and obtaining FDA approval.
Water resistance claims. Water resistance claims on the front label must indicate whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Sunscreens that are not water resistant must include a direction instructing consumers to use a water resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.
Drug Facts. All sunscreens must include standard “Drug Facts” information on the back and/or side of the container.
Choosing a sunscreen from the hundreds on your store’s shelf is always confusing, and most of us fair-skinned types would naturally choose a higher SPF. But as the FDA mentions, there is no good scientific evidence that any SPF over 50 offers a higher protection against skin cancers. And the American Academy of Dermatologists only mentions that “regardless of skin type, a broad-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays), water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 should be used year-round.” They don’t mention anything over 30 as being more useful. Why not?
The main reason is that any SPF over 30 provides only incremental extra blockage of the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. Let’s look at the actual protection (The math is easy, just divide 1 over the SPF number):
- SPF 2 blocks 50%
- SPF 15 blocks 93%
- SPF 30 blocks 97%
- SPF 50 blocks 98%
- SPF 70 blocks 98.6%
- SPF 90 blocks 98.9%
As you see, any SPF over 50 is already blocking 98%, and anything after that is providing minimal extra benefit. People may argue that 99% is still better than 98%, especially those super-fair skinned or with high risks of skin cancers. I personally use year-round protection with a Neutrogena Ultra-Sheer Dry Touch SPF of 45 as I am a pasty Irish-American with a family history of deadly melanoma cancers. Neutrogena, like many companies, also has a line of SPF 55, 70, 85 — even 100. But again, those will be banned starting next summer.
I think the main take-home points are crucial:
- Everyone of all skin types should always use sunscreen at all times of year, at least on the face. In the winter, I like to use an aftershave which also has SPF protection (only 15, but a lot better than nothing as it blocks 93%)
- Nothing is totally “waterproof”, and now the labels must show actual “water resistance” minutes — which would never be more than 120 minutes
- Don’t worry too much about not getting enough vitamin D because of the sunscreen; the Academy of Dermatology believes that everyone can get enough vitamin D via foods. I personally am not convinced of this, especially in the winter, and I prefer to supplement with vitamin D each day.
- There’s some controversy about safety of common chemicals oxybenzone and vitamin A; I think they are fine, and I discuss the medical evidence here.
- Indoor tanning beds are not considered safe and still lead to skin cancers, especially for children and teens.
You can read more information about sunscreens from the Academy of Dermatology’s FAQ on sunscreens; they also have a recent position statement supporting use of sunscreens with SPF 30+ at all times of the year.