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FDA releases new sunscreen guidelines

June 14, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
After years of confusion over what type of sunscreen you should use, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has changed its guidelines. For the first time in 30 years, the FDA has announced new guidelines for sunscreens.

The guidelines are aimed at holding sunscreen makers accountable for making claims of total protection against ultraviolet (UV) rays. The hope is that consumers will be able to better protect themselves against the sun's damaging rays.

If you've ever been confused by sun-protection factor (SPF) numbers or what "broad spectrum" really means, you'll be happy to hear about these new sunscreen guidelines.

The FDA says it will now require sunscreen makers to either prove they filter out both UVA and UVB rays, or the labels will carry a warning.

Manufacturers are leaving something out. SPF 40 doesn't always mean you're getting SPF 40 protection against both UVA and UVB rays -- only UVB.

"SPF does not measure UVA. Those are two different kinds of ultraviolet rays that both can cause skin damage," dermatologist Dr. Shirley Chi, Center for Advanced Dermatology.

UVA rays don't cause sunburns, but they do cause premature aging and skin cancer. And if you thinking you're getting both in a broad-spectrum product, you may not be.

"UVA has to match UVB protection in order for you to write that number on the box," said Chi.

This will be one of key changes when the FDA's labeling requirements go into effect.

Also government researchers are looking into whether to allow products that claim to give you an SPF above 50. Some products advertise an SPF of 70, but studies show that after 50, the protection doesn't make that much of a difference.

Chi says to look for key ingredients.

"It should say 'zinc' or 'titanium,'" said Chi. "So if it's got zinc or titanium in it, those are minerals, those are going to scatter the sunlight, those are going to reflect sunlight. They're going to block both UVA and UVB."

The other thing consumers need to know: just because a label says "sweat-proof" or "waterproof" doesn't mean it is.

"There's no sunscreen that's absolutely waterproof. Once you're in the water, it's going to wash off," said Chi. "I always tell my patients you have to reapply when you come out of the water."

So the new labels may say: "If it's water-resistant for 40 minutes, then they'll put 'Water-resistant for 40 minutes,'" said Chi.

The new labels must be on all sunscreens by the summer of 2012.

But these changes won't help unless you use enough.

To cover your body, you should use about an ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass.

For just your face and neck, that comes out to about a third of a teaspoon.

As for spray-on sunscreens, Chi doesn't recommend them for children because kids can inhale the chemical particles.

The word "sunblock" is also to be discontinued.


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