Navigating the sunscreen aisles at your local store should soon become less confusing under a new federal labeling program announced Tuesday. The long-awaited plan aims to make it clear which products offer the best protection against not only sunburn, but also potentially deadly skin cancer and premature aging.
Set to take effect in summer 2012, the plan also would forbid misleading descriptions such as "waterproof'' and "sweatproof'' that experts say might have consumers wrongly thinking they need only apply the product once a day.
Among the highlights:
• The familiar SPF (Sun Protection Factor) number will stay on bottles as an indicator of protection against sunburn. But only products meeting strict testing standards can claim to offer "broad spectrum" protection against rays linked to skin cancer and wrinkles.
• Products intended for water use will have to state that they are merely "water resistant" — and only for a limited time.
• Products that don't offer at least SPF 15 and broad-spectrum protection will have to warn consumers: "This product has been shown only to prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."
"It's long overdue," said Dr. Neil Fenske, chair of the department of dermatology at the University of South Florida, of the new regulations. "This is very good common-sense information for both manufacturers and the public."
Officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say there's more to come. They also want to cap the maximum SPF value at 50-plus, since they have no proof that higher numbers really provide greater protection. Though the SPF system is familiar, it's not readily understood; for instance, it is not true that SPF 100 lotion is twice as effective as SPF 50 products.
And the government will study the safety of spray-based sunscreens, concerned about how much gets inhaled and whether enough lands on the skin.
"We're worried that some people may just take a brief spray of themselves and really not be applying the amount of sunscreen that you need to be putting on," said Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation.
Two types of rays
The new guidelines emphasize the growing interest in helping consumers understand and protect themselves against two types of harmful sun rays.
Along with visible light, the sun gives off ultraviolet light that we can't see. One kind, UVB, is primarily responsible for sunburn. Protection from UVB is what people have been buying when they select sunscreen by its SPF.
But SPF doesn't address the longer rays known as UVA light, which penetrate the skin more deeply, contributing to wrinkled and leathery skin. UVA is also associated with melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer, and the most common cancer for adults in their 20s.
"Right now, sunscreens are very misleading, because people think if they buy a sunscreen with a real high SPF value, that it gives them protection against all the damaging rays of the sun," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union. "They don't realize that SPF really just refers to UVB."
While he praised the FDA's standards as a step forward, Hansen said some of the new testing requirements don't go far enough. To claim "broad spectrum" coverage, he noted, companies will submit data from laboratory testing. But they won't have to do another test on people of different skin types that would show how well the product protected them.
Such a test was part of a 2007 FDA proposal, Hansen noted, one that called for a four-star system to rate a sunscreen's UVA protection level. But regulators dropped the star system out of concern that it would prove too confusing to consumers.
Instead, the government will use a simple statement as to whether sunscreen offers "broad spectrum" protection. Regulators said the amount of protection required for broad spectrum designation will be linked to the SPF number on the bottle — so for instance, a SPF 45 sunscreen can't offer weak UVA protection.
Sunscreen industry leaders, who were critical of the star system, hailed Tuesday's announcement as a public health victory.
"The FDA has finally acknowledged the important role that sunscreens play in protecting against skin cancer and premature aging due to the sun," said Farah Ahmed, chair of the sunscreen task force for the Personal Care Products Council.
She said the new requirements appear to reflect much of what is already on the market. She did not expect consumers would see their favorite products sacrificing aesthetics — like how easily they can be rubbed in.
But the one-year deadline would be impossible for many manufacturers to comply with, Ahmed said. The industry is worried about how quickly it can test products, redesign labels and put the new bottles on store shelves.
A brief survey of people enjoying the sun along the St. Petersburg waterfront Tuesday afternoon also made it clear that regulators have a long way to go in better educating consumers about sunscreen.
For starters, sunscreen isn't the first line of defense in sun protection. When possible, people should limit the amount of time they spend in the sun, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you must be outside, wear protective hats and clothing. And sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours, or more frequently if you're sweating or in the water.
Interviews with people enjoying the sun in St. Petersburg during the peak hours on Tuesday indicate varying degrees of awareness.
Despite having had skin cancer on his face, Gary Walden only puts on sunscreen with SPF 30 to 50 once a day.
"This is some brutal sun," said the St. Petersburg man, who also buys all-natural soap from a farmer's market that "gives a nice coating" he thinks helps him block the sun.
And 24-year-old Camilla Shoosmitch of St. Petersburg uses sunscreen not to protect her skin, but her tattoos.
"I don't wear it all the time, not as much as I should," she admitted. "I usually only wear sunscreen on my tattoos — they fade and start looking old if you don't put sunscreen on them. . . . I've been here most of my life, and I can remember some gnarly sunburns."
Times staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.