Don't Get Burned: FDA Updates Sunscreen Regulation

Misleading sunscreen claims today could be causing tomorrow's skin cancer.

You know that the winter sun—at high elevations, reflecting off of snow—could give you the worst burn of the year. But did you know that your sunscreen might not protect you from cancer-causing skin damage, even if diligently applied? The problem is that the FDA has not (since 1978!) properly regulated sunscreen effectiveness and promotional terms. That means that a “broad-spectrum” lotion may block UVB (which contributes most to sunburn), while allowing harmful UVA rays to pass through. “You don’t get the warning of a burn to tell you to get out of the sun, and you think you’re fine,” says Mark Masthay, Ph.D, in an exclusive investigation published in SNEWS, the outdoor industry’s leading trade magazine (and BACKPACKER’s sister publication). You could end up with what the photochemist, who has published research on the effects of UV light, calls a “super charge” of cancer-risk-inducing UVA exposure. The FDA plans to approve new guidelines this fall, but the agency has missed such deadlines in the past. This winter, here’s how to protect yourself.

1. LOOK AT THE LABEL The active ingredients should include one or more of the following: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, photo-stabilized avobenzone, or Mexoryl, all of which shield against UVA and UVB rays.

2. GET SPF 30 OR MORE And reapply every two hours. (Note: SPF only indicates how much UVB is blocked, and SPF 50 screens out just 1.3 percent more rays than SPF 30.)

Blockers like zinc oxide appear white on your skin, which is a small price to pay for safe, effective coverage. Avoid nano sprays and powders—which minimize the mime look—until their health effects are better known.

This means a sunscreen lasts 80 minutes in water. The terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” are unregulated, so avoid brands that use those claims.