Want a sunscreen that'll protect against sunburn, skin cancer, and wrinkles? Here's how to pick SPF that works
By Tracy Miller, Prevention
What Is Your Sunscreen Bottle Telling You?
You know how to scrutinize food labels to make the healthiest choices at the grocery store. But when's the last time you turned that eagle eye to your sunscreen label? Like packaged foods, sunscreen bottles are a mishmash of government-regulated terms and unregulated--and downright sketchy--marketing claims, which can confuse even the most conscientious consumer.
In 2011, the FDA announced it was tightening regulations on sunscreen-bottle claims, getting rid of some vague, over-promising terms altogether and redefining others. (For starters, you can soon say sayonara to the word "sunblock"--it'll no longer be allowed on labels because it overstates the product's effectiveness, according to the FDA.) Companies had until December 2012 to comply, but there are other claims--not mentioned in the new regulations--you have to be on the lookout for.
Read on for the key terms you can expect to see on your sunscreen bottle, and what to look for in order to give your skin the best protection.
What it means: As of now, a sunscreen only has to prove its UVB efficacy in order to claim the "broad spectrum" label. Starting in December, any sunscreen bearing these words is required to have passed a new, more stringent test showing that it protects against both UVB rays (the kind that cause sunburn) and UVA rays (which are responsible for skin cancer and early aging).
What you need to know: Make sure your sunscreen specifies broad-spectrum UVA protection as well as UVB. The FDA recommends you go for SPF 15 or higher. We say, why not go for 30? Just remember to reapply!
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"Reduces Risk of Skin Cancer"
What it means: Not much. This term has been unregulated. But after this year, only products with broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection, with an SPF 15 or higher, can bear this claim, according to the FDA.
What you need to know: For now, raise an eyebrow at this claim. Come December, if you want a sunscreen that can protect against skin cancer--in consort with other healthy habits like covering up if you'll be outside during peak times and reapplying your sunscreen often--look for this claim, as well as a broad-spectrum SPF rating of 15 or higher.
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What it means: Like "reduces risk of skin cancer," this term has been something of a free-for-all for marketers. After this year, you won't see the words "waterproof" or "sweatproof" on bottles anymore; the FDA has ruled that no sunscreen is truly waterproof. Sunscreens can, however, be labeled "water resistant" if they meet certain criteria. Additionally, they have to specify for how long they're water resistant--either 40 or 80 minutes--and must provide directions on the bottle for when to reapply.
What you need to know: To make sure you're covered, reapply your sunscreen at least once every two hours if you're in the water or engaging in sweaty activities, says Dr. Arielle Kauvar, MD, director of New York Laser and Skin Care Center.
"Enriched with Antioxidants"
What it means: Because this phrase has no legal definition, this can mean almost anything.
What you need to know: Antioxidants have been shown to combat free radical damage--that's why docs recommend eating plenty of them, as well as applying them directly to your skin. Sunscreens that claim to provide "antioxidant defense" may help your skin fight sun damage, but there's no way for you to know for sure. "It's unlikely that your sunscreen will have the same degree of protection as an antioxidant serum," says Dr. Kauvar. If you want serious antioxidant power, she recommends using both.
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What it means: That you're being duped. All sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours when you're outside to shield you from the sun.
What you need to know: Choosing a sunscreen that's both broad spectrum and water resistant is more important than this vague claim, says Dr. Ellen Marmur, chief of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery and associate professor at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "This claim should be ignored, because you really do need to reapply," she says.
Branded or Trademarked Technology
What it means: Some companies have patented formulas that they claim have better technology to protect you from the sun.
What you need to know: Terms such as such as Helioplex, Enviroblock, or SunSure, to name a few, refer to proprietary formulas that enable the broad-spectrum protection to function, says Dr. Kauvar. But a boldface logo on the bottle doesn't automatically guarantee extra protection. "Unless the company makes its data available, there's no reason to believe it's doing anything beyond what the SPF indicates," Dr. Kauvar says.
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"Works On Wet Skin"
What it means: This has no legal definition. Presumably, marketers mean that you can apply it on the go, when you're sweaty or fresh out of the pool.
What you need to know: The most effective way to apply sunscreen is in cream form on dry skin, but spraying wet skin on the go, in emergencies, can be a stop-gap solution. "I tell my patients applying to dry skin is best," says Dr. Marmur. "But when they're in the pool, I chase my kids and re-spray them, wet or dry," she says. Just be sure to reapply once you're toweled off, too.
What it means: Another unregulated label promise that implies protection when you're outside, sweating up a storm.
What you need to know: "Typically the term 'sport' is used when the sunscreen is water resistant," says Dr. Kauvar--but you can't rely on that vague assumption if you want to protect your skin. Make sure the label on your formula specifies that it's water resistant, and once the new regulations are enforced, be sure to pay attention to whether it's effective is for 40 or 80 minutes. Naturally, you'll have to reapply accordingly.