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The New Rules of Sunscreen
The old rule: Sunscreens are stamped with an SPF value (anywhere from 4 to, in recent years, 100+). This number tells you only how effectively a sunscreen can protect you from UVB rays (the ones that turn your skin red and cause skin cancer). Many sunscreens are also labeled "broad spectrum"—meaning they protect against UVA rays (the ones that age the skin and cause cancer) as well. Manufacturers don't have to prove this claim, though, so the protection may not be adequate.
The new rule: Only sunscreens that pass a new test of UVA protection can be labeled "broad spectrum," a claim that will indicate that the product protects equally against UVB and UVA rays. Sunscreens with an SPF over 15 that earn the "broad spectrum" designation will be allowed to claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and slow down the skin aging process when used properly (applied 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every two hours). Sunscreens with an SPF under 15, or that do not give equal UVB and UVA protection, will have to carry a warning that they haven't been shown to slow skin aging or help prevent skin cancer.
Next: Will "sweatproof" SPF disappear?
The old rule: Sun protection products can be labeled "sweatproof" or "waterproof" or "sunblock."
The new rule: The words "sweatproof," "waterproof" and "sunblock" can no longer appear on sunscreen packaging. "These terms are misleading," says Wang—mainly because they suggest that you don't have to reapply. Sunscreens can claim to be "water-resistant," but the packaging must state how long the product is effective while swimming or sweating (e.g. 40 minutes to 80 minutes).
The FDA also announced this week that they may soon cap the maximum SPF value at 50 because there's not sufficient data to prove that products with higher SPF values provide greater protection. Wang and other dermatologists believe that these sky-high SPFs can give us a false sense of security.
Since the new rules won't go into effect for a year, here's what you can do to protect your skin now: Look for sunscreens that contain avobenzone, octocrylene and zinc oxide (all effective at screening UVA rays) and wear an SPF of 50 or higher if you're going to be outside all day, and 15 to 30 for daily use. And, as Wang stressed to me: "Sunscreen is just one component of an overall skin protection strategy." Stay in the shade as much as possible and wear protective clothing like hats and long sleeves.
We've got tons of ideas to help you stay sun safe in style, along with some great (nongreasy, dermatologist-recommended) sunscreens to try today.
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.