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Sunscreen Safety: What to Know

Sunscreen ingredients, labels, and more.

Sunscreen Hazards continued...

Dermatologists emphasize that sunscreen, though essential, is just one part of sun protection. Along with sunscreen, you should also wear hats and protective SPF-rated clothing as well as seek shade during the hours of most intense sunlight.

"The more things you can do to set yourself up for success, the better," says Ellen Marmur, MD, FAAD, author of Simple Skin Beauty and vice chair of cosmetic and dermatologic surgery at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center.

What's on the Label?

Here are some of the numbers, phrases, and instructions found on a sunscreen label.

SPF: SPF 15, for example, means it would take your skin 15 times longer to get red than if you were wearing no protection at all. So if your unprotected skin begins to redden after 10 minutes in the sun, then with a generous coat of SPF 15, it would take 150 minutes for your skin to begin to turn red, Marmur says.

But to get this protection, you'd have to slather sunscreen on as thick as icing.

"So we're really getting, say, half the number that's on the bottle so just buy the [SPF] 30," Marmur says. That's what the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends, too.

If a sunscreen has an SPF below 15 or does not offer broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB), the new label will say that it only guards against sunburn but not skin cancer.

There's no need to go over SPF 50. We may soon not see labels that promise protection over 50 because the FDA believes there isn't proof that a product can provide such high levels of sun protection.

But to get SPF protection, you must reapply often. By the end of 2012, all labels will tell users to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours. If a brand claims its product lasts longer than two hours, the company will have to prove it to the FDA.

Waterproof, Sweatproof, Sunblock: You can kiss those terms good-bye. The FDA has ordered sunscreen labels to quit using those words because they go too far. At best, you'll see "water-resistant" or "sweat-resistant" and just plain old "sunscreen" rather than "sunblock." Labels will also have to tell you if the product is water- or sweat-resistant for 40 minutes or 80 minutes. After that length of time, you'll have to reapply.

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