Confused by sunscreen alphabet soup?: Despite new labels, products befuddle many consumers

Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2015 1:13 am

BULLHEAD CITY — If you don’t know what an SPF value is or what UVA and UVB rays are, you shouldn’t feel alone.

A recent study indicates that while consumers understand the need for sunscreen, they don’t understand SPF ratings or how sunscreen is supposed to work.

According to its authors, the study suggests that the terminology on sunscreen labels is still confusing to consumers, despite recent changes in labeling mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to emphasize protection against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.

Fewer than 35 percent of the study participants indicated the broad-spectrum designation as an important factor in their purchasing decision.

“Sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays is called broad-spectrum sunscreen,” said Michael R. Proctor, dermatologist at Arizona Desert Dermatology. “Overexposure to either type of rays can lead to skin cancer.”

More than 3.5 million skin cancers in more than 2 million people are diagnosed in the United States every year.

“The American Academy of Dermatology says half of all skin cancers can be prevented by wearing the proper SPF and property application of sunscreen,” Proctor said.

It’s important for consumers to understand what to look for.

SPF, short for sun protection factor, is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays.

A team of doctors from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago surveyed 114 patients at a dermatology clinic to assess consumer comprehension of sunscreen labels and knowledge of protective behaviors.

Nearly 82 percent of the study participants had purchased sunscreen in 2013. Eighty-six percent of the participants identified prevention of sunburn as an important factor in their decision to wear sunscreen. The second-most common factor, identified by nearly 66 percent of study participants, was to prevent skin cancer.

However, fewer than 44 percent of the study participants understood the definition of SPF value and only 23 percent could correctly identify label information that indicated how well that particular sunscreen protected against sunburn. Only 38 percent of the study participants could correctly identify label information on skin cancer and only 7 percent could identify the label information on how well the sunscreen protected against skin aging.

“There are three things to look for on a bottle of sunscreen,” Proctor said. “A sunscreen that is labeled as a broad-spectrum and water resistant.

“I recommend 30 SPF as the minimum SPF people buy. For people without issues, 30 SPF is the minimum. For people with issues such as previously diagnosed skin cancer, autoimmune disorders, medications that cause photosensitivity or other problems need the extra protection. I like to tell people that 50 SPF doesn’t cost any more than 30 SPF, go ahead and pick up the tube with the higher SPF.”

As important as the type of sunscreen purchased is applying it correctly, Proctor said.

Most people are not applying enough sunscreen at a time,” he said. “If you’ve bought a tube of sunscreen that you used all summer and you still have some left over by fall, you’re not applying enough.”

Proctor said sunscreen should be applied 15 to 20 minutes before going out, giving it time to absorb.

“Rub it in but don’t over rub it,” he said. “You want a little of the sunscreen on the surface of your skin.”

Sunscreen should be applied every couple of hours and more often if someone has been in the water or gotten sweaty through work or play, he said.

The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends using a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to help prevent skin cancer from forming on the lips.

The Northwestern University study was published online June 17 in the journal JAMA Dermatology.

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