What exactly does it mean when you see sunscreen or sunblock on a product label? The store shelves offer so many to choose from, no wonder it can get a bit frustrating. Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not updated their sunscreen safety standards since 1978. In June of 2011, FDA posted new rules for sunscreen products to help clear up some of the confusion. The new stricter guidelines mandate products to describe how well the product protects your skin.
Ultraviolet B testing is currently the only one required from manufacturers. UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburn. The new regulations also require sunscreens that don’t protect against both UVA and UVB rays or offer SPF under 15, to carry a warning label: “This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”
Other new regulations include requirements to prohibit claims like “waterproof ” and “sweatproof.” FDA has said these claims are exaggerations. If a product has proof of “water & sweat proofing,” they also need to show how much time you can expect to get SPF protection before having to reapply.
What is the SPF?
“Sun protection factor” lets you know the amount of sun exposure needed to cause sunburn on sunscreen-protected skin compared to unprotected skin. For example, an SPF of 30, allows you to get sun exposure thirty times longer than without any sunscreen, before sunburn. Over the years, the definition of just how high the factor needs to be has changed and gone up and down many times.
The reason for the yo-yo reports on SPF needed is that studies have not proven what amount is effective. The FDA is now proposing to set a high SPF value to 50 and a low of 15. Companies that want to set SPF levels of 75 and 100 on their labels must show testing to back up their claims. As of now, there are no studies substantiating any SPF higher than 50 is more effective or beneficial. In fact, the higher SPFs contain more chemicals, which could cause more harm than good.
Another problem with high SPF such as 100, is it falsely indicates you can stay in the sun a hundred times longer before causing the skin to burn. However, studies report users of high- SPF sunscreens have similar or higher exposures to harmful UV rays. One reason could be they trust the product and do not reapply as needed, while extending sun exposure.
FDA is also banning the term “sunblock” under the new rules, because it does not exist. You can’t block the sun with creams or lotions. The only real way to block the sun is with a hat, umbrella or whatever physical means of not exposing your skin to direct sun.
Ultraviolet A Rays and Cancer
UVB rays only penetrate the outer skin layer, which results in sunburn or in some cases, non-melanoma skin cancer such as squamous cell carcinoma. Although current regulations require testing for UVB rays, it is the UVA rays that are of concern. These rays are far more dangerous. They penetrate deeper into the skin, where it can cause DNA damage. They are linked to wrinkles, skin cancer and can even penetrate glass.
The new FDA ruling mandates products have “broad spectrum” protection, which means sunscreen for both UVA and UVB rays.
Sun worshipers should not, however, get too secure, even with this new “broad spectrum” rule. Skin cancer has been on the rise since the early 1990s. The FDA 2007 draft of sunscreen safety regulations reported: “FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.”
Truth be told, clothing, hats, and shade are the only true barriers to UV radiation and prevention of skin cancer. This fact is echoed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Some reports have found an increase in melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) among sunscreen users. The reason could be these individuals feel they are being protected and that the product they are using is blocking dangerous UV radiation. We know now this is not true.
- Frequent sunscreen users do show a lower incidence of squamous cell carcinoma, which is a slow-growing tumor that is treatable by surgery.
- Sunscreen use has no demonstrated influence on basal cell carcinoma.
- Long-term exposure to the sun, may increase the risk of melanoma.
Physicians are more concerned about malignant melanoma. Children who are exposed to intermittent, severe sunburns are at greatest risk.
Ingredients to Avoid in Sunscreen
Dermatologists recommend sunscreen should only be used on exposed skin areas, like the hands and face. There is concern that problems of potential hormonal toxicity of sunscreen active ingredients with frequent applications on the whole body. This could lead to increase systemic absorption of these ingredients with resulting risk of adverse health effects.
Vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, in some sunscreens, has been recently shown in FDA studies to speed development of skin cancer and lesions. Currently, 30 percent of sunscreens, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG), contain retinyl palmitate. This ingredient is effective for anti-aging when used in creams or lotions for indoor use, but when exposed to sunlight, free radicals can form, that can damage DNA.
In 2009, a study by the Center for Disease Control found the common UVA blocker oxybenzone in the urine of 2,500 people who regularly used sunscreens. Oxybenzone has been reported to have hormone-like activity and is not recommended by EWG.
After testing 1,000 brands of sunscreen, EWG found many with potentially toxic ingredients, including oxybenzone.
FDA Allowable Ingredients in Sunscreens, and Results for Safety
- Padimate O—not supported by European Union (EU), may be delisted by FDA
- p-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA)—shown to increase DNA defects
- Cinoxate—not tested for safety
- Dioxybenzone—not tested for safety
- Oxybenzone—not tested for safety
- Homosalate—not tested for safety
- Menthyl Anthranilate—not tested for safety
- Octocrylene—increases reactive oxygen in skin, advancing aging
- Octyl Salicylate—not tested for safety
- Trolamine Salicylate—not tested for safety
- Zinc Oxide—protects skin against tumors in mice
How to Protect Yourself in Summer or Winter
Sunshine is vital to our health and well-being. The main source of vitamin D in the body is sunshine. Vitamin D strengthens bones and our immune system, reduces the risk of certain cancers and is important in regulation of genes involved in many tissues of the body.
Vitamin D supplements are the alternative to maintaining needed levels, however, how much is needed is still debated by scientists. Dermatologists and researchers do agree on the following:
- Keep sunscreen and lip balm with you at all time, in your car and purse.
- Use a natural sunscreen, preferably with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
- Keep a broad-rimmed hat in your car and wear it during sun exposure, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4p.m., when ultraviolet rays are strongest.
- Children have sensitive, delicate skin and should especially be protected with proper clothing to cover sun-exposed areas. Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the best recommended for babies and children.
- Wear sunglasses to help prevent damage like cataracts or vision loss at older age.
- Your lips also need sun cream. Protect your lips with natural lip balm with shea butter, which has natural sunscreen properties.
- Apply sunscreen approximately 30 minutes before exposure. Re-apply often.
- Make sure to apply to face, hands, neck, ears, hands and arms.
Best Sunscreens to Buy
Consumer watchdog groups like the Environmental Working Group, offer education and health and eco-friendly sun protection recommendations. They also recommend not giving up on sunscreens altogether. But they do summarize that the best first line of defense against harmful radiation should be shade, protective clothing and avoiding the noontime sun.