By Alexis Farah
While sunscreen labels and guidelines have gotten a facelift in the last few years, many people aren’t paying any attention to them. According to new findings published in the July 2015 Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined the results of a 2013 survey and found that only 14.3 percent of men, and 29.9 percent of women, in America reported that they regularly use sunscreen.
The results are disheartening, to say the least, given how easy it is to keep your skin safe. “Just wearing sunscreen will decrease the risk of developing skin cancer,” stresses Francesca Fusco, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “We are fortunate that, as consumers, we have a way of decreasing that risk with sunscreen.”
And if the doc’s urgings aren’t enough to convert you to an SPF die-hard, maybe the label updates and clarified information will be convincing enough for you to take sunscreen as seriously as you do summer Fridays.
Yes, you really do need an SPF 30 or higher
The golden rule of sunscreen is now to choose a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. The 30 blocks out about 97 percent of UV rays, explains Dr. Fusco, while SPF 15 blocks out only 93 percent. If you want to get really fancy (and we suggest you do!), use SPF 50, which blocks out 98 percent of UV rays. You can also download the American Academy of Dermatology’s Derm A-Z app, which reveals the UV index (on a scale of one through 10) in your area based on your zip code. The app then provides handy ways for you to stay protected based on the index number.
For total protection, look for “broad spectrum” on the label
Not all sunscreens are created equal, which is why dermatologists urge their patients to use a broad spectrum version to protect their skin against both UVA and UVB rays. And rest assured that these labels are legit: As of late, the FDA mandates additional testing to ensure the formula protects against both UV rays in order for a brand to be able to make a broad spectrum claim on the label.
Even darker skin tones need to cover up
Don’t use your skin tone as an excuse to skip the SPF. Studies show that the darkest toned skin is an SPF 13.4, while Caucasian skin comes in at around SPF 3.4. And according to the FDA’s final ruling in 2011, these numbers are not high enough for a sunscreen to be able to claim that it prevents sunburn, accelerated skin aging, or skin cancer, says Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, associate professor of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Use this cheat sheet to find a sunscreen that’s right for you.
SPFs 2-4 are totally useless
As of 2013, sunscreens with these low numbers (you’re pretty much just applying a body lotion) must display a warning that the product has not been shown to help prevent skin cancer or early skin aging. Then why not pull them from the market, you ask? “The FDA has taken measures to ensure that a warning be placed on these products, but beyond that, the FDA cannot stop distribution of these products as long as they are not harmful and meet the over-the-counter safety requirements,” explains Dr. Friedman.
No sunscreen is waterproof or sweatproof
Another feature of the new labeling system requires that manufacturers not make claims that sunscreens are “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” Instead, SPFs may say “water-resistant” and must specify whether they protect the skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating based on standard testing, according to the FDA.
After two hours outside, reapply
It’s not just that the lotion can rub off or fade after two hours; new requirements say that a company cannot claim that its sunscreen provides protection for more than two hours without submitting test results to prove it.
Keep babies younger than six months out of the sun
For starters, it’s a bad idea to apply sunscreen to infants because of the unique anatomical differences between infant skin and adult — or even children’s — skin, says Friedman, referring to the different thickness, acidity, and sensitivity of a baby’s skin. “Therefore, babies need to be physically protected by staying out of the sun, and by using clothing or covers” when they are in the sun, he adds.
SPF numbers can be tricky. Do you really know what those digits to the right of the “SPF” labeling stand for?
In theory, it’s the amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned. For example, if you would normally burn after 10 minutes, a sunscreen with SPF 15 should allow you to stay out for 150 minutes before burning, notes Jessica Wu, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at USC Medical School in this Q&A. But experts agree that, often, those numbers don’t translate into real life. “The intensity of the UV factors into it as does the time of day and the amount that is applied to the skin,” she says. Bottom line: apply generously, and reapply often.
Never, ever use sunscreen to create body art
There’s a baffling new trend growing around the country in which people are using the presence of UV light – and lack thereof – to create sunburn tattoos on their bodies. This result is burning in different shapes or outlines based on where sunscreen is positioned. There is a right way to apply sunscreen, and that’s just not it.
Not all sunscreens are created the same — some may be toxic
Take a Goldilocks approach to choosing your sunscreen: Don’t buy the first one that you see, and instead find one that’s just right. According to the Environmental Working Group, you should you avoid ingredients like oxybenzone, which can enter the bloodstream or trigger allergic skin reactions, and retinyl palmitate, which may speed development of skin tumors and lesions. The group instead recommends looking for products that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients.