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Illustration by Gregg Bender | The Journal Gazette
New FDA rules

Deciphering sunscreen

Just in time for summer, the Food and Drug Administration has made big changes in sunscreen labeling.

Gone are the days when a sunscreen could label itself waterproof or sweatproof or claim it provided instant or sunblock protection. No product can do those things, the FDA says.

And if a sunscreen doesn’t have a sun protection factor of at least 15 and survive testing for protection against both burning UVB and aging- and skin cancer-linked UVA rays, it can’t call itself broad spectrum and must carry a warning label.

Consumers need to be wary when buying sunscreen, says Andrea Fischer, an FDA spokeswoman.

Some noncomplying sunscreens might still be in stores or lingering in medicine chests, she says.

That’s because large manufacturers had to comply with the new rules by December but smaller companies were given until the end of this year. “Anything on the shelf before (the cutoff) doesn’t have to be taken off,” she says.

An evaluation of sunscreens published in the July Consumer Reports finds other reasons to toss older sunscreens.

While the FDA requires sunscreens provide an expiration date or show that a product will remain stable for at least three years, that doesn’t mean its SPF protection will remain intact, according to the report.

Sunscreens stored in a hot place – such as a car in summer – may degrade faster. And if sunscreen freezes, it can also lose effectiveness.

The ideal place to keep sunscreen, according to health authorities, is in the refrigerator. If a sunscreen has separated or smells off, it’s likely contaminated and should be tossed. If you buy an undated sunscreen, label it yourself and throw it out after two years.

Other sunscreen tips:

Don’t be lured by higher SPFs. SPF is a measure of how long you can stay in the sun without burning. So an SPF of 15 means you can stay out 15 times longer than without protection – 300 minutes if you start to burn in 20. While an SPF of 30 will filter slightly more UVB rays than an SPF of 15, the FDA now says sunscreens with an SPF of more than 50 provide no additional benefit. Consumer Reports recommends a water-resistant SPF of at least 40.

Paying more doesn’t mean more protection. Consumer Reports, in testing 12 readily available sunscreens, found some store brands among the most effective. Target’s Up and Up SPF 50 spray, at $1.16 an ounce, was top-rated and Walgreens’ Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 lotion was second and rated a best buy at only 47 cents an ounce. The three priciest sunscreen lotions tested, priced per ounce – All Terrain Aqua Sport SPF 30 ($4.33), Badger Unscented SPF 34 ($5.52) and Kiss My Face with Hydresia SPF 40 ($5.33) – were at the bottom.

Apply properly. According to the FDA you should wait at least 15 minutes after applying sunscreen before sun exposure. Repeat the application every 2 to 3 hours, or more often if swimming or sweating. If using a spray, apply it to the hands and use them to put the product on the face. Avoid using sprays directly on kids. Keep infants younger than 6 months out of the sun completely and dressed in protective clothing and a hat.

Be sun aware. Sun is at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and can still do damage on cloudy days. Being near reflective water (or snow) increases the amount of radiation received. Before heading out, you can check the UV index by municipality or ZIP code at