Have you ever found yourself standing in front of the drugstore’s sunscreen display and wondering which sunscreen to purchase? There are so many different brands and types … lotions, gels, sprays, sticks, water resistant, etc. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if you are purchasing a sunscreen to reduce the risk of skin cancer, early skin aging, and to prevent sunburn you must purchase a product that is labeled with BOTH “Broad Spectrum” and SPF 15 or higher.
In 2011, the FDA established labeling guidelines for sunscreens. Let me share some facts about sunscreen types, ingredients and labeling to help you purchase the right sunscreen for you.
What does sunscreen protect against?
Sunlight is made up of ultraviolet rays that can have harmful effects on the skin. UV rays have been linked to skin cancer and a weakening of the immune system. They contribute to the formation of cataracts, premature aging of the skin, skin color changes (“tan”) and skin cancers. There are two types of ultraviolet rays: Ultraviolet B rays (UVB) and Ultraviolet A rays (UVA). UVB rays account for only 5 percent of the ultraviolet rays that reach Earth; they are the primary cause of sunburn and contribute to the aging of skin, skin cancers and hyperpigmentation. UVA rays account for the remaining 95 percent of the sun’s rays, they are less potent then UVB rays, but they also contribute to the development of skin cancers and skin aging. Up to 90 percent of visible skin changes commonly associated with aging are actually caused by sun exposure. A good sunscreen offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays and is labeled “Broad Spectrum” to indicate it offers protection against both types of UV rays.
Sunscreen products work by absorbing and/or reflecting UVB and UVA rays. The most commonly used sunscreen ingredients are "chemical absorbers." When sunlight hits the skin, chemical absorbers actually absorb the active UV rays and release their energy in harmless ways. Some products also contain “physical blockers” such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that reflect and scatter UV rays to prevent them from penetrating the skin.
SPF or Sun Protection Factor is a measure of UVB protection. A minimum SPF of 15 is recommended. The higher the SPF the more protection offered. FDA regulations state that a product with a SPF value between 2 and 14 can only claim to help prevent sunburn.
Water-resistant. If you will be using sunscreen while swimming or perspiring, you should purchase a product that is labeled water resistant. According to labeling guidelines, “water resistant” sunscreen must maintain its SPF after 40 minutes of water immersion, and a “very water resistant” sunscreen must maintain its SPF after 80 minutes of water immersion. If a product is not labeled water resistant, FDA requires the manufacturer to inform the consumer to use a water resistant sunscreen if swimming or perspiring.
For the best protection, apply sunscreen very liberally about a half hour before going outside to give the sunscreen time to absorb and take effect. The FDA recommends you reapply sunscreen at least every two hours and after swimming, perspiring heavily and towel drying because those activities can remove the protective layer of sunscreen.
Sunscreen does lose its effectiveness over time. Always check the products expiration date before using. If the sunscreen doesn’t have an expiration date or if the date is no longer legible, the recommended shelf life is three years. Store sunscreen out of direct sunlight and do not expose it to excessive heat.
Sunscreen is only one piece of the sun protection puzzle. For maximum sun protection, in addition to wearing sunscreen daily, you should avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m.-4 p.m., avoid tanning beds, seek shade when outside and wear protective clothing!
Mitzi Parker is Sumter County Extension agent/Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. Contact her at 924-4476.