FDA to Issue New Sunscreen Labeling Rules; Until Then, Cover or Lather Up

"Waterproof!" "Total Block!" "All-day Protection!" "Ultra Sweatproof!" These and other marketing claims on containers of sunscreen are "Ultra Rubbish," many doctors and other authorities say. Now, after years of planning to update the sometimes confusing numbers and acronyms used on sunscreen labeling, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue new standards in the coming weeks.

The scientific and medical communities have learned much about the sun's effects on skin and cancer since 1978, when the FDA first proposed a system of labeling products with an S.P.F. or Sun Protection Factor, which measures how effective the product is in preventing burn caused by the sun's ultraviolet B rays, a factor in skin cancer. But ultraviolet A rays, which also can contribute to cancer and skin aging, are not rated by the current rules. Many products do, however, already contain UVA screening agents such as Mexoryl SX, avobenzone, titanium dioxide, and/or zinc oxide, but few products include instructions for how much of the product to use for effective protection.

"The S.P.F. is a terrible system to guide consumers," says skin cancer specialist Dr. James M. Spencer, a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Fla., in a July 5 New York Times article. "Nobody is using sunscreen the way it is measured in a lab."

Spencer says people should use about a shot glass of sunscreen for the body and a teaspoon for the face to best achieve the S.P.F. protection listed on labels, and that this amount should be reapplied every few hours and immediately after swimming or sweating.

Even after the new FDA rules are published, it may take two years for the changes to take effect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best way to prevent skin cancer is to stay out of the sun during peak hours and wear sun-protective clothing, including long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats.

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