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Sunscreen changes: Don't feel the burn

Sunscreen labeling laws get tougher in battle against skin cancer

Jun. 25, 2013 - 10:47AM   |  
Lance Cpl. Iris Santana, a fiscal clerk with the disbursing office, Company A, Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, sprays on sunscreen before going to work recently. Sunscreen protects individuals from ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns and can lead to skin cancer.
Lance Cpl. Iris Santana, a fiscal clerk with the disbursing office, Company A, Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, sprays on sunscreen before going to work recently. Sunscreen protects individuals from ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns and can lead to skin cancer. (Cpl. Jo Jones)
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An oldie, but still a goodie?

Is that old bottle of sunscreen left over from last year still good? Probably, says Dr. Lawrence Gibson, a dermatologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Sunscreens are designed to retain their original strength for up to three years. Some types have an expiration date, and users should toss any that are past their prime. But those without an expiration date can be safely used if they’ve been stored at room temperature and don’t have any obvious changes in color or consistency, Gibson noted in a blog post at
For the best protection, physicians recommend seeking out products that contain 3 percent avobenzone, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Given the amount of time active-duty troops spend outdoors, it’s little wonder that melanoma is the second-most diagnosed cancer among them.

But an active lifestyle doesn’t necessarily sentence service members to a future of skin cancer. Sunscreen can prevent all types of skin cancer, including melanoma, which is considered the most dangerous.

This summer marks the first year U.S. sunscreen manufacturers are following new Food and Drug Administration guidelines for labeling their products. The hope is that the new details, along with improved testing and regulation, will better protect consumers’ hides.

“This new information will help consumers know which products offer the best protection from the harmful rays of the sun. It is important for consumers to read the entire label, both front and back, in order to choose the appropriate sunscreen for their needs,” said Lydia Velazquez with the FDA’s Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development.

The new labels contain the words “broad spectrum,” have the sun protection factor (SPF) clearly marked, and, if the product is water-resistant, explain how long a person can expect to be protected while swimming or sweating without reapplying — either 40 or 80 minutes.

Broad-spectrum products protect against the rays that cause sunburn (UVB) and those that cause long-term sun damage, as well as cancer (UVA and UVB).

Under the new FDA guidelines, any sun protection product that is not broad spectrum or has an SPF rating below 15 carries this ominous warning:

“Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”

Products also are no longer to be labeled with sky-high SPF numbers. Sunscreen that offers the maximum protection will be labeled “50-plus,” because data does not exist showing that the products with higher numbers provide any more protection than those listed as SPF 50.

The new labels also give specific instructions for applying sunscreen: at least 15 minutes before exposure and every two hours thereafter.

The terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” have been banished from front labels as well, replaced by small print under “Directions” for how long a person can expect protection without needing to reapply.

But consumers still can find hints on the front that the product is made to withstand the wet. For example, Coppertone Sport claims it “Stays on Strong when you Sweat,” and Banana Boat Sport Performance says “Water resistant (80 minutes).”

Velazquez said the changes were necessary because “our scientific understanding has grown. We want consumers to understand that not all sunscreens are created equal.”

Between 2000 and 2009, a total of 1,418 active-duty troops were diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a relatively rare form of skin cancer that causes the most deaths of all skin cancers.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 700,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Regular use of sunscreen offers a bonus: Besides warding off painful burns from sun exposure and protecting against cancer, it may help reduce the effects of skin aging, including wrinkles and mottled skin.

A study published in June of 903 adults in tropical Australia — the country with the highest incidence of skin cancer — showed that those who used a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day for four years had “no detectable increase in skin aging,” compared with those who used sunscreen at their own discretion.

“Regular sunscreen use retards skin aging in healthy, middle-aged men and women,” researchers wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The FDA advises consumers to always use broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher and limit time in the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is the strongest.

The agency also recommends reapplying every two hours and more often if you’re working out or swimming.

Air Force Maj. Christopher Bunt with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., offered this visual to know how much to apply: about enough to fill a shot glass.

Bunt said that one to 1½ ounces of sunscreen will go a long way toward protecting your skin from future damage and a potentially fatal disease.

“The reason we care about getting that broad coverage is that UVB causes visible sunburn, and UVA causes the invisible underlying skin damage, which can lead ultimately to cancer,” he said.

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