For years, sunscreen lotions often provided a false sense of security with ill-defined labels such as "broad spectrum," "waterproof" or "sweatproof." Sunburns offered proof of the shortcomings, but thanks to the Food and Drug Administration, those misleading days are numbered. Forty-five years after it first slapped warnings on cigarette packages, the FDA has finally reached the conclusion that a product designed to help prevent cancer must also clearly state what it can accomplish. That's particularly good news in the Sunshine State.
Beginning next year, there will be clearer labeling that bans the term "sunblock" and requires adequate protection for claims of "broad spectrum" protection and skin cancer prevention. Oftentimes, beachgoers and runners neglect to reapply lotions advertised as "waterproof" and/or "sweatproof." Now sunscreens will be marked for what they are: water or sweat resistant. Products will be allowed to claim the duration of that resistance, giving consumers a more accurate timetable for reapplications.
The FDA requirements also will draw a clear distinction between tanning lotion and sunscreen. Only products with SPF values of 15 or higher will be able to say they prevent sunburning, skin cancer or early skin aging. Any lotion that has a lower SPF value or fails to provide equal UVA and UVB protection will include a warning advising customers that the product has not been shown to help prevent against the sun's harmful effects. And some companies will be forced to adopt a new, standardized way of testing for UVA protection.
The FDA has landed a big blow in the fight against skin cancer, but it should not grow complacent. There is still testing to do on sunscreens with SPF values higher than 50, which expose people to additional irritating ingredients without a meaningful return in protection, experts say. The FDA says it will examine the sunscreen agents approved for use in the United States and notify the public of any concerns that arise.
Accurate labeling of sunscreens seems like a small thing, but it's an important public health issue. More than 2 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, and these positive steps by the FDA should help reduce that number.