Cutting Through the SPF Label

by Brian A. Guadagno – CEO, Raw Elements USA

A Practical Field Guide to Choosing & Using Sunscreen Effectively!

2014 will provide a full year of sunscreens carrying the newly required FDA labeling changes. Along with labeling changes, the manner in which sunscreens are tested and are required to perform in regards to broad spectrum protection has changed. While the labels on sunscreen products should be a bit less confusing, it is still important for consumers to understand how to make their selections. The greatest challenge for consumers is how to go about choosing, and even more importantly, how to go about using sunscreen effectively. Understanding background on UV rays and how they affect the skin is an important place to start.


There are two types of ultraviolet rays that are of concern to our skin: UVB and UVA. UVB rays are primarily responsible for reddening or “burning” the outer layers of skin. UVB damage can cause skin cancer. Each incidence of sunburns that lead to peeling is believed to increase one’s risk of skin cancer by 50%. UVA rays, the “tanning” rays, are deeper penetrating and responsible for long-term skin aging, wrinkles and cellular damage. UVA rays are now believed to be a key contributor toward the most aggressive and potentially deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma. To easily remember the effects of the two types of ultraviolet rays, think: UVB-burning/sunburn, UVA-aging/tan. Overexposure to both UVA and UVB rays is carcinogenic and can cause skin cancer.


Fact: Skin cancer rates continue to rise as does the use of sunscreen. There may be contributing factors which come into play that do not have anything to do with sunscreen or its application. That said, the single most important job of an effective sunscreen is to truly attain and maintain balanced broad-spectrum protection. Broad-spectrum protection refers to a product’s ability to effectively mitigate the harmful effects of both UVB and UVA rays. Under the new FDA regulations, a product marked “Broad Spectrum” will now be mandated to filter a required amount of UVA relative to its SPF (UVB) claim. One crucial point most consumers are unaware of is this: The manner and amount of sunscreen the consumer applies will dramatically affect sunscreen performance. It is critical to seek sunscreens that contain active ingredients that provide broad-spectrum protection, and just as critical to be certain to apply and reapply properly.


How to Choose Sunscreen Effectively


1. Choose Broad Spectrum Zinc Oxide protection. Donʼt let the term “Broad Spectrum” on the label make the sale; look deeper. There are 18 FDA-approved active ingredients in sunscreen that provide protection. While many of these offer UVB protection, only four offer any UVA protection. Zinc Oxide is the only ingredient that physically blocks the entire range of UVA & UVB. Zinc Oxide sits on top of skin and is not absorbed like the other ingredients. Plus, it doesn’t irritate your skin. Look for Zinc Oxide percentages to be over 18% if Zinc Oxide is the only active ingredient.


2. Use SPF 30(+), beware of lower or higher numbers. It is widely accepted that SPF 30 is the benchmark needed to provide adequate UVB protection. In FDA-mandated, controlled testing, SPF 30 sunscreens filtered 97% of UVB rays while SPF 50 only filtered 1% more at 98%, and SPF 100 would only offer 2% more at 99%. In a real-life setting, however, it is very unlikely that filtering more than 97% of UVB rays is plausible. Furthermore, extremely high SPF claims may provide a false sense of security while possibly doubling the amount of chemical skin absorption needed in the formulas and risking excessive UVA exposure.


3. Choose “Very Water Resistant” and use caution with spray-on products. The term “Very Water Resistant” is regulated by the FDA. It represents a sunscreen’s ability to remain effective after 80 minutes of exposure to water, while “Water Resistant” refers to 40 minutes. “Waterproof” and “All Day Protection” claims are no longer allowed. A product that is “Very Water Resistant” will likely offer better sweat resistance. Ultimately, a “Very Water Resistant” sunscreen that has performed well for you in the past is a wise choice in the future. Use caution with spray or powder sunscreens because the applicators expel excess amounts of chemical ingredients that immediately become inhalants and pose a potential health hazard. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to determine the correct dose for application.


How to Use Sunscreen Effectively


1. Sunscreen is the last line of defense, not the first. It is imperative that a complete approach toward sun protection is used, and contrary to popular belief, no sunscreen alone will keep you totally protected. It is always suggested to stay indoors during the peak sun hours between 10am and 2pm, seek shade and wear protective clothing and hats. Avoid extended periods of exposure, and never allow skin to sunburn. Finally, avoid a deep tan, as both UVB and UVA rays cause skin cancer.


2. Apply the correct amount. In order for sunscreen to be effective as advertised, the correct amount must be applied. The FDA regulates that all sunscreens must be SPF tested in the amount of 2mg of formula per square centimeter of skin. What this means is that an adult wearing only shorts must use one full ounce of sunscreen per application to cover all the exposed skin properly. Approximately a teaspoon-size amount is needed to adequately protect the face, ears and neck. Using less than the correct amount drastically reduces the sunscreen’s ability to protect the skin and the SPF claim will not be met.


3. Apply early, reapply often. The vast majority of chemical sunscreens require early application, at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure to be effective. Reducing this time period will reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen. It is imperative to reapply sunscreen often, at least every eighty minutes during long periods of sun exposure. Regardless of how water resistant a formula claims to be, it is wise to reapply after any water exposure, sweating, or towel drying. Applying early and reapplying often will give the sunscreen the best chance to perform effectively.

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