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Sunscreens: FDA Implements New Regulations to Clarify Myths and Stop Misleading Advertising Strategies
Only sunscreens with sun protection factors (SPF) between 15 and 50 truly protect against skin cancer

By María José Zamora, M.D.

For years we have been led to believe that all sunscreens, regardless of whether they offer a sun protection factor (SPF) of 10, 70 or 90, protect against sunburn and cancer. And, to top it off, they claim to help prevent premature skin aging as well. However, thanks to the new rules announced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at the beginning of June, these and other myths are now a thing of the past.

How important are the new regulations for Costa Rica? Extremely important, considering that in Costa Rica skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and is increasingly common among young people. According to data from the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, only in 2010 401 hospital admissions related to skin tumors were recorded, amounting to little more than one case per day.

Among the main rules approved by the FDA, sunscreen manufacturers will be required to indicate if a product offers equal protection against both the damaging effects of UVA rays which are responsible for premature aging, and UVB rays which cause sunburn. Both types of ultra violet rays play a role in skin cancer. Under the new regulations, if a product protects against both types of rays, they can be labeled and differentiated as "Broad Spectrum," serving as a warranty for consumers.

The new regulations will no longer allow sunscreens to be marketed as "sunblock", "waterproof" or "sweatproof" since, according to the FDA, "These claims overstate their effectiveness." Although manufacturers will still be able to claim that their products are water resistant, they will need to indicate on their front labels how long the sunscreen remains effective once skin comes in contact with water, allowing consumers to know how often they need to reapply the product.

Likewise, the FDA recommends using only those sunscreens with sun protection factors (SPF) between 15 and 50. The FDA says that there is not sufficient evidence to prove that products with sun protection factor values higher than 50 provide greater protection for those who use them than those labeled "SPF 50." In addition, several studies have shown that people who use higher-SPF sunscreens tend to feel overconfident and therefore apply sunscreen less frequently.

The ideal sunscreen: one that clearly states on its label that it is "broad spectrum" and with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more. Only with these sunscreens can a user be sure that of real protection against sunburn and premature aging, in addition to reduced risk of skin cancer.

What Do the Labels Mean?

By Francisco Renick, M.D..

Under the new sunscreen labeling regulations approved by the FDA, which will take up to a year to come into full effect, information provided on labels will be more precise and easier to understand. Here a quick guide to understanding them:
• UVA / UVB: radiation from ultraviolet A (UVA) and B (UVB) rays can cause premature aging, eye damage (including cataracts) and contribute to the formation of skin cancer (UV radiation causes continuous damage to the skin's cellular DNA, which in turn leads to genetic mutations that may cause cancer).
• Sun protection factor (SPF): it is a relative measure that indicates how long a person may be exposed to sunlight as a result of the protection provided by a certain sunscreen. According to a person's skin type, this time will vary. For example, if a fair-skinned person who usually gets sunburn after being under the sun for 10 minutes applies an SPF 20 sunscreen, this person will then take 200 minutes to get sunburn (10 minutes x 20 SPF). On the other hand, if a person usually gets sunburn in 30 minutes, by applying this same sunscreen they will be protected for 600 minutes (30 minutes x 20 SPF).
• Waterproof: this indicates that a product protects against sunburn for up to 80 minutes of water exposure. However, this term has been banned under new FDA rules.
• Water resistant: this means that a certain product is intended to be used in the water, protecting against sunburn for up to 40 minutes of water-related activities, such as swimming. It should be reapplied frequently.
• PABA-free: sunscreen products with this inscription on their labels are free of para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), an organic compound known for its protective properties against ultraviolet rays. However, it is also known to cause allergic reactions and is highly toxic at elevated doses. Therefore it is best to avoid it.


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