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New labeling will help you pick the best sunscreen

Consumer Reports News: May 15, 2012 06:08 AM

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Coming soon to a store near you: sunscreens with labels that are easier to understand. The Food and Drug Administration plans to give manufacturers until mid-December to make all the changes, but many products already have the new labeling. Here are some of the biggest changes, which will also apply to moisturizers and cosmetic products that contain a sun-protection factor (SPF):

"Broad spectrum" will really mean something. The SPF value indicates a sunscreen's protection from ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which is the primary cause of sunburn. But now sunscreens that claim broad-spectrum protection will have to prove they also protect against ultraviolet A radiation, which ages skin and contributes to skin cancer, as well as UVB rays. The FDA says sunscreens must pass a new critical wavelength test for UVA protection.

Water-resistance claims will be more specific. Sunscreens will now have to list on the front whether they're effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating. The FDA says you'll no longer see words like "sweatproof" or "waterproof" on the label because all sunscreens eventually wash off. All sunscreens will be labeled "reapply at least every two hours".

The term "sunblock" will be banned. The FDA won't allow that claim on bottles because it overstates sunscreen's effectiveness.

Sun protection information will be listed on the back. Inside the Drug Facts box new information will explain that sun exposure increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher that also pass the new broad-spectrum test will be able to say that they reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun. (Our sunscreen experts recommend using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.) Sunscreens that are not broad spectrum or that have an SPF of less than 15 must say they help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.

All-day and instant protection will need to be proved. Sunscreen manufacturers will have to prove to the FDA that their product provides all-day or instant protection before they can make those claims. Our experts say you should apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside so your skin can absorb it.

SPF 50+ might be the highest SPF you'll see on labels. The FDA says it doesn't have enough clinical data to prove that sunscreens with SPF values higher than 50 provide additional protection. But it has not yet made a decision about future labeling requirements.

Meanwhile, find out how 18 top-selling sunscreens performed in our latest tests (available to subscribers) and which ingredients you should be on the lookout for. Watch the video below to see how we conducted our tests.

Nicole Sarrubbo

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