Choosing the Right Sunscreen

With summer well under way, whether you’re a routine sunscreen user or were driven to the drugstore by a bad sunburn, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the enormous selection of sunscreen products on the shelves. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released new guidelines and regulations last month regarding sunscreen labeling that will be implemented before the next summer, so even if you are sticking to a familiar product, there’s room for confusion, as the packaging and labels may change to fit regulations. Here is a primer to help you navigate the products and choose which is best for you.

1. Vehicle

Sunscreens come in multiple vehicles – primarily, lotions, creams, sprays, and “liquids.” In the past, a huge deterrent to regular sunscreen use was its viscosity, or “thickness” – sunscreens would leave a white residue on the skin that could feel uncomfortable when used properly. Most current sunscreen formulations, however, are much more cosmetically acceptable and even moisturizing for the skin. In the past, sunscreens came only as creams and lotions, which can be messy or tedious to apply over the entire skin surface. Sunscreen sprays are a newer formulation and are easier to apply to large surfaces more quickly. They also tend to be faster drying and thus are often the ideal formulation for families with kids. The disadvantage of sunscreen sprays is that the actual sun-protective ingredients may not be as evenly dispersed in the spray compared to thicker cream formulations, so there may be some variation in the sun protection or amount of SPF that eventually gets on the skin. “Liquid” sunscreens are also newer formulations of sunscreen that are very light lotions. These are ideal for sunscreen protection on the face, especially for those who wear makeup, as they can double as under-makeup moisturizers.

2. “SPF” and “broad spectrum”

SPF, or sun protection factor, is a laboratory measure of a sunscreen’s ability to protect skin from ultraviolet B radiation (UVB). These are the rays that cause sunburns and are the most highly linked with skin cancers. Currently, sunscreens provide SPF in the 2-100 range. While the actual SPF calculation is a complicated mathematical algorithm, it is possible to understand some basics behind SPF. In general, the higher SPF, the greater the protection. An SPF of 50, however, does not mean it has double the protection of a sunscreen with SPF 25. An SPF of 15 will protect the user from nearly 93% of the sun’s UVB rays; as SPF increases, this number approaches or exceeds 99%. To get the amount of SPF that is indicated on the bottle, however, 2 mg of sunscreen needs to be applied to every square centimeter of skin – this equals about 1 ounce of sunscreen for a single application of the entire body. Most people use far less than this when applying sunscreen, and as a result get much less sun protection than the labeled SPF.

While SPF is a measure of UVB protection, ultraviolet light also contains UVA rays, which harm skin by causing aging of the skin. While there is no current standard measure of UVA protection for labeling of sunscreen, such as SPF is used for UVB, the label “broad spectrum” generally means the sunscreen contains both UVA and UVB protection. The new FDA rules regarding sunscreen labeling will require that sunscreens containing a broad-spectrum label pass specific tests for UVA and UVB protection, where the UVA protection increases with UVB protection, so that the SPF will give a measure of overall protection rather than reflecting only UVB protection. In general, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30.

3. New FDA labeling requirements: Changes you should expect to see

As mentioned above, the FDA has implemented new rules regarding labeling of sunscreen. The new labeling must be implemented before the summer of 2012, but you are likely to start seeing many changes happening now. In addition to the broad-spectrum designation, there are a few other changes to look out for.

You may notice “use claims” on your sunscreen label stating that the product reduces the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when used as directed and in conjunction with other sun protection measures. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher will be able to have this claim, however; sunscreens with an SPF of less than 15 and/or those that are not broad spectrum can only claim to help prevent sunburn.

“Waterproof,” “sweatproof,” and “sunblock” claims will no longer be allowed; sunscreen will be allowed to carry the label “water resistant” if it remains effective for at least 40 minutes during swimming or sweating, based on standard testing.

Lastly, a rule to allow a maximum label of SPF 50+ has been proposed but is not yet official. So don’t be surprised if your favorite SPF 80 or SPF 100 vanishes off the shelf; if this rule goes into effect, these will all be relabeled with “SPF 50+.”

For more information visit:

Published on 08/18/2011 | Last updated on 10/18/2018