What Does SPF Mean? New FDA Regulations Now in Effect for Sunscreens

sunscreen regulations from fdaThe sun is shining, flowers are emerging, and thoughts are turning to spring and summer. If, like me, you tend to plan ahead, you may already be thinking about the location of your sunscreen. Digging out that greasy old bottle of Coppertone may seem enough but it’s important to remember that not all sunscreens are the same.

With this in mind, the FDA’s new regulations for sunscreen marketing are now in effect, after months of delays, governing how manufacturers promote sunscreens, including how they cite SPF. What does this mean for us as savvy consumers wanting naturally healthy skin? Hopefully, it means we get a better quality product that does what it promises.

What do the New Regulations Mean?

Two summers ago, way back in 2011, I blogged about how the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laid down their new guidelines for companies making and selling sunscreens. This was the first time that this industry had been subject to any regulation and, unsurprisingly, delays arose as companies complained that they needed time to test and change their products.

The cut-off date of June 2012 for compliance was pushed back to December 17th 2012 and, now, all those companies with annual sales over $25,000 must comply with the new sunscreen marketing regulations. Those below that earnings threshold have until December 17th this year to comply.

How do the FDA Sunscreen Guidelines Help Us Buy Better Sunscreen?

The hope is that these new regulations will help educate us consumers and allow us to make better health choices when purchasing sunscreen. Most people realise that sunscreen is a necessity, not a luxury item to help achieve that desired tan. The ultraviolet rays from the sun cause premature skin ageing through free-radical production and the same damaging effects can also trigger cancerous changes in our cells.

Safe sunscreen practices are for everyone, not just those that burn easily, have previously had skin cancer, or for parents with small children. Indeed, sunscreen is now found in lip balms, moisturisers and other cosmetic products as manufacturers realise the potential to make its use as convenient as possible.

What Do We Need to Know to Stay Sun-Safe?

Problems still exist though as consumers are confused by claims from these manufacturers. I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone that the most expensive sunscreens are not necessarily the best, as found in this review.

Does a high SPF really protect your skin any more than a lower or mid-range SPF lotion? What is the difference between a full-spectrum sunscreen and one that doesn’t make this claim? How long can you stay in the sun if you use repeated applications of a lower SPF sunscreen? Can your friend using the same sunscreen stay in the sun for the same amount of time as you?

Full-Spectrum, Water-Resistant, SPF… What Does it Really Mean?

Sun safety is paramount as skin cancer cases are on the rise and the health of the ozone layer diminishes, letting more dangerous rays through. Luckily, many products available today are able to protect the skin from both kinds of UV radiation and are comfortable and practically invisible on the skin, unlike older, thicker creams that many did not use because they looked unsightly.

Full-spectrum coverage now means just that; those sunscreens making these claims must be able to demonstrate that they protect against the UVB rays that cause sunburn itself and the UVA rays responsible for skin cancer and wrinkle production. Companies marketing sunscreen as waterproof or water resistant also have to adhere to specific standards and all SPFs must be verified.

Working out What SPF You Need

Knowing the credibility of the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of your sunscreen is one thing, understanding what it means for you is a whole other issue. The SPF tells you two things: how long you can stay in the sun without burning and how well the formula screens the sun’s rays. A low SPF 2 sunscreen only filters about half of the sun’s rays, SPF blocks about 85%, SPF 15 about 95% and an SPF 30 cream blocks about 97%. As regards the time you can safely be in the sun, well, this does differ for you and your friends and family, even when using the same sunscreen.

To work out your time limit in the sun before a reapplication is needed or you need to find shade you first need to know how long you can normally stay in the sun without turning pink. Take that number of minutes and multiply it by your SPF on your sunscreen. As an example, I burn pretty easily (even in winter!), meaning that in summer I have about ten minutes in the sun before I’m in trouble.

My SPF 30 sunscreen would allow me 300 minutes in the sun, assuming that I don’t sweat, swim, or rub off the sunscreen in that time. Someone using an SPF 15 who usually starts to turn pink after 20 minutes in the sun would be on the same schedule for reapplying sunscreen as me, whereas someone using my sunscreen but taking a half hour to turn pink without protection would be covered for some 900 minutes!

Planning to Stay Safe in the Sun

If you know you’ll be busy outdoors and forget to put on extra sunscreen then take the figure of the time you’ll be otherwise occupied, divide it by how long it usually takes you to start turning pink in the sun and your figure is the minimum SPF you need. Going on a hike for six hours and don’t want to carry sunscreen with you?

Usually turn pink in twenty minutes in the sun? You’re looking at a SPF 18 at the minimum to have you covered for your hike (6 hrs is 360 minutes, divided by 20 mins to give you 18). Of course, it’s wise to take extra sunscreen for yourself and in case others have forgotten to put any on.

In summary, the FDA has made it easier to know how well protected you are by any given sunscreen (from the larger companies at least, for now). So, do the math, buy new lotion and stay sun-safe.

NB: If you’ve been diligently using sunscreen all winter to stall the ageing effects of the sun’s rays on your skin and reduce your skin cancer risk, I hope you’re getting a good dose of vitamin D from an absorbable source!

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