You don’t have to be luxuriating on a beach in the Carribean this summer to be in danger of serious skin damage. As recent record-breaking temperatures have shown, the sun can be just as intense — and just as dangerous to your health — in the middle of Times Square as it is on the sparkling shores of the Bahamas.
Dermatologists generally recommend that people use sunscreen to protect against damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, regardless of where they are. But not all sunscreens are equally effective, and labels can be misleading. The Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines regarding sunscreen labels have remained largely unchanged since 1978, providing little guidance to consumers in a market that has changed rapidly over the last 30 years.
A proposal for updated FDA guidelines in 2001 would have required sunscreen manufacturers to add ratings for protection against Ultraviolet-A (UVA) radiation, and to cap the maximum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) at 50+ (most experts consider anything above that range to be superfluous). But the process for approving those measures has taken a long time, and the FDA has now delayed its expected deadline to October of this year.
So in the absence of new guidance from the FDA, here are five things you need to know about sunscreen, in order to stay healthy and safe this summer:
The difference between UVA and UVB radiation
Sunscreens sold in the U.S. currently carry a single SPF rating, which measures only the sunscreen’s protection against Ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation, the primary cause of sunburn. However, Ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays penetrate the skin more deeply, causing the skin to age more rapidly. And both forms of ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer.
While many manufacturers market their sunscreens as “broad spectrum,” it is difficult for consumers to know whether they are getting adequate protection from UVA rays, said Steven Wang, director of dermatology and dermatologic surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The FDA’s proposal to add a four-star UVA rating system could solve this problem, though Wang warned that it could also confuse consumers accustomed to the single SPF rating.
“Whether this is a good system, I think the science is sound and it does provide a good start,” Wang said. “I’m afraid you may get some degree of confusion, so a great deal of education is needed to disseminate the information to the public.”
If the proposal for the UVA rating system is finally approved in October, the new labels would hit the shelves in the summer of 2012 at the earliest, according to The New York Times.
Is SPF 100 worth it?
In recent years, sunscreen manufacturers have been producing sunscreens with very high SPF ratings, reaching into the triple digits. Household brands such Neutrogena, Coppertone and Banana Boat now offer sunscreens with SPF ratings as high as 100.
In reality, expensive sunscreens with super-high SPF ratings generally provide the same amount of protection from ultraviolet radiation as sunscreens with lower SPF ratings. For example, sunscreens with an SPF rating of 30 block out about 97 percent of UVB radiation, while suncreens with SPF ratings of 50 block about 98 percent. Sunscreens labeled SPF 100 do only one percentage point better, blocking out about 99 percent of ultraviolet rays, according to the American Cancer Society.
Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, said sunscreens with especially high SPF ratings offer consumers a false sense of security but still leave them vulnerable to the negative health effects of excessive ultraviolet radiation.
“We worry that UVA protection is no where close to that high,” Lunder said. “You may never get a sunburn, but may acquire a lot of damage.”
Europeans have better sunscreens than we do
The sun can be just as intense in Crete as it is in Miami. But as it turns out, Europeans might have much better protection against its damaging rays.
The European Union allows its member states to use 27 different chemicals as ingredients in sunscreens, while U.S. manufacturers are only allowed to use 17 chemicals. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group has shown that the European-approved chemicals are up to five times more effective at blocking ultraviolet rays than ingredients in the U.S.
The chemicals in U.S. sunscreen are also ineffective at blocking the more dangerous UVA rays, and none of them would meet the highest standards of the FDA’s proposed four-star UVA rating system, Lunder said. As a result, the FDA is considering allowing U.S. manufacturers to use several of the European-approved chemicals, or at least to use “new combinations of active ingredients,” according to the 2001 proposal.
Meanwhile, international pharmacies like Tubotica.com have started offering European sunscreens to U.S. customers, but at a hefty cost.
Can sunscreen itself cause cancer?
Some experts and advocates have argued that at least one common additive in U.S. sunscreens can potentially cause skin cancer itself. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A common in many skincare products, can be found in about 40 percent of U.S. sunscreens.
The National Toxicology Program, which tests chemicals used in consumer products for safety, conducted a one-year study in which lab mice were coated with different concentrations of retinyl palmitate and then exposed to light. An analysis by the Environmental Working Group concluded that “tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent sooner” in the mice treated with retinyl palmitate.
But in a study of the same data, Wang refuted Environmental Working Group’s claim that retinyl palmitate can cause skin cancer. Wang added that dermatologists regularly prescribe Vitamin A to treat skin blemishes, like acne, without cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the findings by the Environmental Working Group have stirred controversy. In June, New York Sen. Charles Schumer called on the FDA to “immediately address recent reports suggesting a possible link between skin cancer and a common chemical found in sunscreens.” The FDA is expected to release its own conclusions in October.
So how should you buy and use sunscreen?
Buying cost-effective sunscreens can be difficult, given the lack of adequate information on the labels. The Environmental Working Group suggests consumers do some research before purchasing sunscreens, and focus on three important factors: SPF rating, protection from dangerous UVA rays and the presence of active mineral ingredients, such as zinc or titanium. The group publishes a guide to common sunscreens, with scores for sun protection and safety. They also single out sunscreens to avoid, and ones that can be especially hazardous to children.
But even when they do buy the right kinds of sunscreen, consumers often apply it in the wrong ways. For one, Lunder said, people should stick to lotions rather than sprays, so that they don’t inhale potentially dangerous chemicals. Lotions are also easier to apply. As Dr. Wang of Memorial Sloan-Kettering explained, most people fail to apply the recommended amounts of sunscreen, effectively cutting the SPF factor of those products in half. To get the most protection out of your sunscreen, Wang said, you should reapply it at least every two hours.