Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Best sunscreen? Labels to clarify claims on skin cancer, SPF and 'waterproof'

Ethen Richardson, 5, of St. Petersburg makes a face as his mom, Julie Roberts, reapplies his SPF 30 Tuesday afternoon at Treasure Island. “It’s not an option for him,” Roberts said. “No sunscreen, no beach time. As white as he is, he’d burn instantly.”


Ethen Richardson, 5, of St. Petersburg makes a face as his mom, Julie Roberts, reapplies his SPF 30 Tuesday afternoon at Treasure Island. “It’s not an option for him,” Roberts said. “No sunscreen, no beach time. As white as he is, he’d burn instantly.”

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.

Industry approves

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 or (727) 893-8330. For more health news, visit

How to protect yourself before new regulations

• Look for products that offer broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays. Although there's not currently a standard for what that means, you still want products that claim to offer complete coverage.

• Select an SPF 30 or greater product, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. Although the FDA will consider SPF 15 products effective, dermatologists say the higher SPF is a good idea because most of us don't use enough product.

• Adults should apply one ounce of sunscreen about 15 minutes before going outside. That's enough to fill a shot glass. Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, or more often if you are sweating or swimming.

• Wear protective clothing and seek shade, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

• Effective sunscreens don't have to be expensive. Consumer Reports Health identifies three "CR Best Buys:"

Up & Up Sport SPF 30 (Target), $0.88 per ounce

No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45, $0.59 per ounce

Equate Baby SPF 50 (Walmart), $0.63 per ounce

On UVB protection, all three products provide "Excellent" protection, while providing "Very Good" protection against UVA radiation, according to the magazine.

Best sunscreen? Labels to clarify claims on skin cancer, SPF and 'waterproof' 06/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 5:19pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals


    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  2. No lack of issues facing St. Petersburg's six council candidates


    ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.

    St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left)  Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless in District 2; Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice in District 4; and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6. All six candidates appeared at Monday night's forum at City Hall sponsored by the League of Women Voters. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]

  3. Iraq's Kurds vote on independence, raising regional fears


    IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

    People celebrate Monday after voting closed in a referendum on independence in Irbil, Iraq.
  4. North Korean diplomat says Trump has 'declared war'


    UNITED NATIONS — North Korea's top diplomat said Monday that President Donald Trump's weekend tweet was a "declaration of war" and North Korea has the right to retaliate by shooting down U.S. bombers, even in international airspace.

    North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, center, speaks outside the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York on Monday.
  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]