Sunscreen Labels Confuse Consumers


Sunscreen labels confuse consumers. In a recent study, JAMA Dermatology documented  research  performed at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, which brought awareness to the number of people who lack sunscreen knowledge. Of the 114 people in the study, 23 percent were knowledgeable of the sun protection factor (SPF) that would provide a shield for sunburns. This awareness comes at a time when reports indicate that the sun’s rays are stronger this summer and the skin will need greater protection.  Despite the many options in sunscreen products, most people shop for the highest SPF, believing its content gives full protection.

The number of melanoma cases in the United States, between 1982 and 2011, has doubled, according to the Center of Disease Control (CDC).  Reading the active and inactive ingredients is very important for the consumer in order to determine what level of protection can be expected. The term “broad spectrum” is a valuable ingredient that consumers must note on the labels of sunscreen products. This tells the consumer that the product will block both ultraviolet A (UVA)  and ultraviolet B (UVB), which are associated with skin cancer.  UVA, which can penetrate clouds and windows, is year-round and can cause aging, wrinkling, and tanning, as well as create a greater impact on the skin’s collagen; whereas, UVB is responsible for sunburns, but penetrates the skin less than UVA.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer in the United States and 90 percent is a result of skin cell damage from ultraviolet rays. Several of the sunscreen products protect the skin against UVB and some provide a shield against UVA; however, very few products have protection against both ultraviolet rays. The ultraviolet rays that can cause DNA damage can come as a result of direct contact with the sun or from a tanning bed.

Sunscreen labels confuse people who do not know what SPF really means. A dermatologist and author of the research at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine defines SPF in terms of the length of time a person can be out in the sun and not get sunburned in comparison to someone not using a sunscreen product. For example, a person using SPF 30 can be in the sun approximately 30 times longer before a sunburn occurs as long as the product is reapplied.

The concept of sun protection and SPF is difficult for consumers to comprehend. If SPF 15 is used, it is not true that the product is half as effective as a SPF 30 product. SPF 15 will filter 93 percent of the UVB rays and SPF 30 provides a 97 percent shield. Further changes to the labels by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would be useful for greater consumer understanding.

Consumer reports have made recommendations to avoid oxybenzone, which may affect hormones and retinyl palmitate, which converts into retinoids. It has been linked to birth defects. Mineral sunscreens are not as effective because they do not contain active chemical ingredients, but they are safe to use. An amount equivalent to a shot glass of a sunscreen product with SPF 30, that is waterproof, and labeled with the term “broad spectrum,” when applied twenty minutes before going in the sun and every two hours after has been determined to be effective to protect confused consumers from UVA and UVB rays.

By Marie A. Wakefield

Edited by Jennifer Pfalz

Time: This is the Only Article You Need to Read
NPR: When It Comes to SPFs and Sunscreen, We’re Still in the Dark Add Sunscreen to Daily Routine, Melanoma Rates on the Rise

Photo by Stanley Zimny’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License

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