Screen Your Sunscreens

Not all sunscreens are created equal. Many high-SPF lotions that are on the market may not be providing as much protection as we think–either because their ingredients or their instructions aren’t effective enough, say researchers.

That could help explain why even though sales of sunscreen products are rising–up 27% from 2009 to more than $1 billion last year–so is the incidence of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. 

“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world, but it is also one of the most preventable,” says Elizabeth L. Tanzi, M.D., a Washington, D.C. dermatologist and co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. Sunscreen, she adds, is “a vital part” of skin cancer prevention–if it’s used correctly. 

The problem is that we often don’t apply sunscreens evenly or frequently enough, or we assume from the packaging that we’re getting more protection than we actually are (and behave accordingly). Now new labeling rules by the Food and Drug Administration are aimed at changing that. 

Keep reading to find out what the new regulations will mean.


The FDA regulations, which are in effect this summer, include these changes:

New restrictions on the use of “broad spectrum” as a label. The term can now only be used to describe sunscreens with proven ingredients to protect us from both UVA and UVB rays. “We know that UVB light causes sunburns and skin cancer, but we also know what UVA light causes skin aging and skin cancer,” explains Tanzi. Some sunscreens, however, only offer protection against UVB rays, which cause sunburns. (UVA rays penetrate more deeply.) 

A Sun Protection Factor (SPF) lower than 15 now requires a warning label. These lotions must carry a label stating that the product won’t protect the user from skin cancer. David Leffell, M.D., professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale School of Medicine advises consumers to seek out an SPF of at least 30. (And don’t bother picking one with an SPF above 50. Many experts agree numbers higher than that may not be any more effective and may lure us into believing we can apply it less often.)

No more “waterproof” claims. Manufacturers can no longer use this term, which suggests that you’ll stay safe after a swim in the pool or ocean without reapplying the lotion. Bottles can now only say “water-resistant” and they must include information on how often to reapply the product when swimming or sweating (either every 40 or 80 minutes). 

A max time limit of 80 minutes before reapplication is recommended. Whether you’re swimming, or just sitting by the pool, you should reapply the lotion at least every hour and 20 minutes. That will be noted in new directions on products. This should help address a mistake sunbathers often make: waiting too long to reapply lotion. (Another one: Applying too little the first time. Doctors recommend a ping-pong ball-sized dollop of lotion be applied evenly over any exposed areas — from your feet to your forehead.) 

Though the FDA rules stop there, some experts go further.

Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy group, also recommends avoiding vitamin A (listed as retinyl palmitate), which can increase sun sensitivity, and oxybenzone, a chemical that can cause allergic reactions and may disrupt hormonal activity. Lunder, the lead analyst on a new EWG report, also advises using lotion over sprays, which may not provide as much coverage. 

Of course, even the best sunscreen can only do so much. If you want the maximum protection, Tanzi and other experts still recommend a hat and sunglasses, shade instead of direct sunlight, and staying inside, or covering up, during the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. 

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