New Rules for Sunscreen Labels

Most people’s knowledge about sunscreen products is limited to two tidbits: first, we shouldn’t go in the sun without it… and second, the higher the SPF, the more protection we have. Actually, neither of those items is exactly correct. Since I’ve written before about how we actually need a bit of unprotected sun exposure (see Daily Health News, August 7, 2007), I’ll leave that topic aside right now in order to concentrate on the latter point — that SPF ratings alone are not exactly on target, in part because of new scientific information and in part because the current system is misleading. This has led to its proposal for new rules about the labeling of sunscreen products. So here’s what you need to know when picking your sunscreen…


The current system classifies sunscreen protection with the familiar SPF (short for “Sunburn Protection Factor”). Many organizations, including the American Academy of Dermatology, claim that a sunscreen with SPF 15 would allow a person who would ordinarily burn in, say 12 minutes, to stay in the sun for 180 minutes (12 x 15) before getting the same burn. However, the FDA disputes this theory since SPF is related to the amount of solar exposure, not time, and is dependent on other factors including geographic location, time of day, skin type, amount of sunscreen applied and rate of reapplication. However, these ratings only apply to UVB rays when, in fact, UVA light is also damaging to the skin.

Therefore, the proposed new rules will also require sunscreen products to display on the label a four-star rating to indicate level of protection from UVA rays. One star means low protection and four promises the highest level available. If a product does not offer UVA protection, the label must say “No UVA protection” near the SPF. So, each sunscreen product label will feature two separate ratings — stars for UVA and an SPF number and descriptor for UVB protection.

This reflects the current understanding in the scientific and medical communities that UVA light — the ultraviolet rays that tan your skin — causes skin cancer and other damage, whereas it was previously believed that only UVB light (the “burning” rays) could be destructive. There’s a third kind of ultraviolet light, called UVC, that could also be destructive but it is absorbed by gases in the atmosphere so there is no need to add sunscreen protection for it.


The new labeling rules are all very good for the consumer, I was told by Darrell Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. He was enthusiastic about several aspects of the new labeling system. In addition to providing specific information about UVA protection, the manufacturers must now be more precise in their use of descriptive terms on sunscreen labels. For instance, manufacturers can no longer use the term “broad spectrum.” Some labeling will stay the same. Sunscreens labeled “water resistant” are those that need to be reapplied after 40 minutes of swimming or sweating, and after towel drying. Otherwise, every two hours. Those labeled “very water resistant” or “very sweat resistant” would survive 80 minutes of water immersion. The terms “sweatproof” and “waterproof” never had any legal meaning, added Dr. Rigel, and once the new rules become law, they can no longer be used.


Additionally, Dr. Rigel told me that much better sunscreen products are being developed. In his view, some of the best current products (including Aveeno products and Neutrogena products using an ingredient combo marketed as Helioplex) are made with the ingredients avobenzone and oxybenzone, which protect against both UVA and UVB. Other companies will soon introduce versions like these as well.

The FDA approval process takes time so it’s hard to predict exactly when the new regulations will become law. Dr. Rigel postulated that the new labeling system will be mandated in time for summer of 2009, but he says we’ll start seeing products using the dual star-SPF system this summer. When you see these new and improved labels, he recommends purchasing only sunscreens with a rating of three stars or higher for UVA protection and an SPF of 30 or higher for UVB protection.