May 28, 2013 -- Summer is nearly here, and that means it's time to stock up on sunscreen. But as anyone who's slathered or sprayed only to wind up with a stinging sunburn can tell you, not all sun protection is created equal.
"In the past, you almost had to be an organic chemist to know what to look for on sunscreen labels, whether it was protecting you or not," says Darrell Rigel, MD. He is clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.
New FDA rules for sunscreen labels are going to make it a whole lot easier for people to compare products when they shop for sunscreen. Here's what to look for:
Broad spectrum coverage. Before the new rules, the term "broad spectrum" had no meaning. Now, the FDA allows sunscreens to use the term only if they pass a certain test for blocking UVB and UVA rays.
Broad spectrum products help protect the skin from burning, skin cancer, and sun damage that causes wrinkles and premature skin aging.
SPF above 30. SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, refers to the length of time a person can stay out in the sun with the sunscreen on before they'll burn. In theory, the higher the number, the longer your protection lasts.
But SPFs come with a big catch. Sunscreens are tested for SPFs at a certain thickness on the skin, says Rigel, and people rarely use that much.
"The reality is that if you're using a 50 and you're applying half the normal rated amount, you're getting between a 12 1/2 and a 25 at actual use," he says. Higher SPFs offer better insurance against sunburn, in case you don't put enough on.
Water resistance. Your old sunscreen might have claimed to be "waterproof" or "sweat proof." Those terms are no longer allowed under the new FDA rules because they are misleading, Rigel says. Instead, bottles will now say whether a sunscreen is water resistant for 40 or 80 minutes.
The new sunscreen rules are helpful, but they're not perfect. They don't yet apply to newer formulations, like sprays and powders, so people are still on their own when trying to judge the effectiveness of those products, Rigel says.
The new labels also don't tell you anything about how sticky, gooey, or greasy a product feels, and that's important, Rigel says, since "sunscreens only work if you use them."