10 Tips – and New FDA Rules – to Save Your Skin

Photo (cc) by InterContinental Hong Kong

Twenty percent of us will develop skin cancer at some point in our life, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Two million people in the United States are diagnosed with some form of the cancer each year.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is making it a little easier for shoppers to protect themselves.

Last summer, after years of research and discussion, the FDA officially decided to update the federal sunscreen labeling rules. The new rules were supposed to go into effect next month, but the FDA recently announced that they’re extending the deadline by six months.

Still, some sunscreen products are expected to bear the new label starting this summer – and understanding the new rules now will help you better protect your skin this summer…

What will change

  • The term “broad spectrum” will have a specific definition. It will mean that a sunscreen protects against both types of ultraviolet radiation from the sun: UVA and UVB. In the past, FDA rules focused on UVB rays, which cause sunburns. But UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin, contribute to skin cancer and early aging even though they don’t cause burns.
  • The term “sunblock” will be banned – because it’s misleading.
  • The terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” will be replaced with the more accurate terms “water-resistant” and “sweat-resistant.”
  • Water-resistant details will be added. If a sunscreen is water-resistant, its label will specify how long it remains effective while you’re swimming or sweating. So instead of just the word “water-resistant,” you’ll see either “water-resistant (40 minutes)” or “water-resistant (80 minutes)” so you know how often to reapply.
  • The Drug Facts label must appear an all products that contain sunscreen, including cosmetics (see the example below).
new FDA sunscreen rule
Sample sunscreen labeled according to the FDA's new rule

More ways to save your skin now

  • Check the expiration date. According to the Mayo Clinic, sunscreen has a shelf life of three years, tops.
  • Don’t leave sunscreen in the car (or anywhere else hot). Exposure to heat shortens its shelf life, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Make sunscreen a daily habit. Even if you aren’t planning to spend the day outdoors, you should still plan to protect your skin. The sun’s UV rays can cause damage in fewer than 15 minutes, according to the CDC. So if you don’t apply sunscreen daily, look for a moisturizer with sunscreen – and use it daily. Many makeup products like foundation, concealer, and lip balms include sunscreen.
  • Remember the rest of your body. When we’re in a swimsuit, it’s hard to forget all that bare skin from the neck down. But when we’re dressed for a regular day, many people forget the exposed skin on their lower arms or upper chest and only apply sunscreen to their face. As cosmetics expert Paula Begoun puts it, “You must apply sunscreen liberally on all parts of your body that will see daylight!”
  • Dress up. Clothing can also act as sun protection. (Looser is better: The tighter the fit, the less effective it is as sun protection). So if you don’t want to slather up your naked skin every day, wear a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves.
  • Remember the basics. No matter what expert you consult, they’ll echo two basic sunscreen requirements: an SPF of at least 15 (some say 30) and broad-spectrum protection.
  • Educate yourself. If you learn which active sunscreen ingredients protect against which UV rays, you won’t have to blindly trust the term “broad spectrum.” As Paula Begoun simply explains it, there are only a few ingredients that protect against UVA rays in the U.S.: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone (which may also be listed as Parsol 1789 or butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane), and Mexoryl SX. So if you don’t see one of those exact ingredients listed as an active ingredient in your sunscreen, it won’t protect you against both UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Check the UV forecast. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation can be more intense on some days than others, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publishes a free UV Index and updates it daily. Just enter your ZIP code before leaving home and this cool tool will tell you – on a scale of 1 to 11-plus – when to be extra wary of the sun. “Even on an overcast day, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds,” warns the FDA.
  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Just about every expert will tell you that’s when the sun’s UV rays are most intense. Some experts even say you should avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Skip the tanning bed. Baking in a tanning bed is like paying for cancer – and a recent Harvard Medical School study provides the latest evidence. The 20-year study found that tanning bed use corresponds to an increased risk of three different types of skin cancer, particularly for younger tanners.
  • Look after your eyes too. According to the EPA, even short-term sun exposure can burn the front surface of your eyes just as it does your skin – and long-term exposure can lead to eye disorders like cataracts. So look for sunglasses that are specifically labeled “sunglasses” and that have a label offering 99 to 100 percent UV protection against UVA and UVB rays. Don’t feel like you have to pay extra for it, though: “Pricier sunglasses don’t ensure greater UV protection,” says the FDA.

Karla Bowsher runs our deals page and covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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