Not all sunscreen is created equal, and it can be difficult to decide on the best protection for you among the countless options available. All you can really do is hope that what you've chosen is going to do the job it claims. "The biggest issue is that it's very hard for a consumer to pick a new sunscreen. Unless you're a chemist it can be very confusing to know what to purchase," Dr. Rigel says. What type of protection you're getting versus what you need is the trickiest part of sunblock shopping, but new, stricter regulations will ideally ensure what you see on the bottle is what you get.
So what is ideal? The most effective sunscreen is going to be the one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and the new regulations will require that sunscreens be tested for their ability to block both. The FDA currently only requires testing for protection against UVB rays. And if you're wondering what the difference is, it's pretty significant.
UVA: These rays are the more harmful of the two and pose a greater threat of skin cancer and sun damage (fine lines and wrinkles caused by too much time working on your tan). UVA rays can also penetrate glass.
UVB: These rays are primarily responsible for sunburn, but can also cause cancer and other skin damage.
Buying a bottle of sunscreen today doesn't mean you will be protected from both types of rays, and anything written on the bottle claiming to protect from both might not have been proven. The new guidelines hope to change that. "There will be nothing on the bottle that hasn't been proven or that's just marketing-speak," Dr. Rigel explains.
Once the new regulations go into effect – ideally next summer – the best bottle to buy will be the one that says "broad spectrum," which means that the sunscreen has an SPF of 15 or higher and has been shown to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. "Broad spectrum" is listed on many products now, but that doesn't mean it should be. "In the past, 'broad spectrum' meant nothing – it was just a marketing ploy," explains Dr. Rigel.
Some other label no-no's include claims that a product is sweat-proof or waterproof, both of which will be getting the boot. Instead Rigel explains that sunscreen will have to use the term "water-resistant" and most importantly, indicate for how long – 40 or 80 minutes. "With the new guidelines there will be some consistency and proof," Dr. Rigel says.
Along with nixing claims that mean nothing, the FDA also says that sunscreen with an SPF between 2 and 14 or that does not protect against UVA rays will come with a warning, stating that the product can only protect against sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging. Getting more specific and educating consumers on what they need can only be beneficial. "The most important difference the guidelines will bring is that it will be much easier to determine the sunscreen that's right for you," Dr. Rigel adds.
Dr. Rigel also wants to remind consumers to make sure they are applying enough sunscreen – one ounce (the size of a shot glass) for your body. He says most people are still under-applying and often don't remember to reapply throughout the day. Depending on how long you'll be spending outdoors and your skin tone, you need to apply protection every two hours, he says.