Not all sunscreens are created equal
It's Skin Cancer Awareness Week on OnMilwaukee.com, dedicated to the memory of our colleague, Tim Cuprisin, who died of melanoma last fall. Melanoma kills 9,100 Americans each year, but together, we can beat it. All week long, we're bringing you survivor stories, prevention plans and breakthroughs to make skin cancer a disease of the past. We've also set up a fund in memory of Tim and urge you to donate here. Skin Cancer Awareness Week is sponsored by the Dermatology Associates of Wisconsin. Enjoy the Milwaukee summer, but be safe and smart in the sun!
You should commend yourself if you reach for a tube of sunscreen before heading outside on a hot summer day. But you should also know that not all sunscreens provide the same protection, and because of ample confusion in the marketplace, the government is seeking to make things a little more clear.
Unfortunately, its plan is taking longer than anticipated.
The order from the Food and Drug Administration actually came last summer and was supposed to go into effect this June, and it's designed to help consumers differentiate between brands that protect from sunburn-causing UVB rays and the UVA rays, the deeper penetrating sun effects that are linked to skin cancer and premature aging.
This spring, the FDA delayed new label changes from going into effect for another six months, bowing to industry request for more time to get new bottles on the shelves.
"It's not a simple redesign of the label. We're talking about a huge number of products. Companies would need to order new components; they would need to perhaps get new molds. So that requires a re-engineering of manufacturing equipment," Farah Ahmed of the Personal Care Products Council, told NPR.
When the labels finally become a reality, they will prevent manufacturers from claiming their sunscreens are sweat-proof or waterproof – they can still be called sweat- or water-resistant for 40-80 minutes), and new labels will indicate when reapplication is necessary. They also cannot claim to offer "instant protection" or identify the products as "sun blocks."
The delay means the new labels won't go into effect until December – or later for smaller manufacturers – but that doesn't mean you can't be a safe and informed consumer in the meantime.
According to Dr. Debra Scarlett, a dermatologist with Madison Medical Affiliates, you want to use a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. That will be labeled "broad spectrum" when the label changes are in place.
Also, be aware that anything lower than SPF 15 isn't going to do much to prevent skin cancer or aging, although it might halt sunburn (Scarlett recommends SPF 30 or higher, and SPF 50 will be the new maximum).
As for the SPF 2-14 products, they will include a warning that reads: "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."
Finally, reapply frequently. There's no such thing is a waterproof or sweat-proof sunscreen.
"You want to use 1 ounce for your body (about the size of a shot glass)," says Scarlett.
"Re-apply every two hours, or sooner if you are working out or swimming. Also remember you can physically cover yourself with things like hats or long sleeves.
"It's also important to limit exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., the peak hours of the sun," she says.
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