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How you should read a sunscreen label before you buy it

You may think you know exactly which sunscreen to look for when you hit the drugstore, but labels can be confusing.

According to a new study out of Northwestern University and published in JAMA Dermatology, many people are confused when it comes to sunscreen labels. Who can blame us? Labels can leave you scratching your head.

Of 114 people surveyed last year, 81.6 percent of them bought sunscreen in 2013. Of them, 43 percent understood what sun factor protection meant, but just 7 percent knew what to look for on the label if they wanted to choose an anti-aging sunscreen. Only 34.2 percent of them said that the broad spectrum classification was an important factor.

“We need to do a better job of educating people about sun protection and make it easier for them to understand labels,” said Dr. Roopal Kundu, lead author of the study.

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Unsure about what types of things to look for on the label to ensure you’re getting the protection you want? Here are a few things to look for:

1. Look for broad spectrum protection — not just SPF

Sunscreens with SPF help protect the skin from ultraviolet B rays. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns. However, research has shown that both ultraviolet A and UVB rays can contribute to premature skin aging and skin cancers.

“Broad spectrum protection” protects skin from UVA and UVB rays. This is why looking for broad spectrum protection is so important if you want to prevent yourself from aging, cancer and painful sunburns. Sunscreen brands have had to put this notation on their labels since 2011.

About 75 percent said preventing sunburn was a top reason they wore sunscreen, while 66 percent said they wore sunscreen to prevent cancer.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: The top three factors in choosing a sunscreen according to those surveyed were high SPF, sensitive skin option and water/sweat resistance. This means that noting if the product had broad spectrum protection was not a top factor for the people surveyed.

Almost half reported buying sunscreen with the highest SPF available, but Kundu said that doesn’t mean you are fully protected. Those that wanted a high SPF may be doing so to prevent sunburn, not knowing that they could still be more at risk for skin cancer… not to mention aging.

2. Consider other weather factors besides sun

There are now products that protect against wind and sand — perfect if you’re catching rays on the beach. You may not need them, though, if you’re poolside in the sun. Working out in the great outdoors? You may want to eye a sweatproof variety.

Regardless of your sun exposure activity, Kundu said the researchers recommend a broad spectrum product with an SPF of 30 or above that is water-resistant.

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“SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of the UVB radiation. But, you need to reapply it every two hours, using about a shot glass full of lotion over your exposed skin, for the best results,” he said in a statement.

3. Never buy a sunscreen without these on the label

According to the recent sunscreen label requirements, the following must be on the front of a label:

  • Broad spectrum designation (If it’s not there, it’s not in the product!)
  • SPF rating
  • Water-resistant duration (either 40 or 80 minutes)

From there, you can determine if there are any other specifications you need — wind protection, sweatproof, etc. — based on what’s on the label.

“It can be confusing because there are many different products available, which is due to some of the other characteristics consumers are looking for in sunscreen [such as fragrance, sensitive skin],” Kundu said.

Kundu also told SheKnows that it’s important to reapply sunscreen every two hours — and more frequently if you are exposed to water. Don’t blow this rule off.

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Now spread the knowledge

Now that you know what to look for in a sunscreen, you may want to share that know-how with friends or family members while you slather on the lotion or spray.

When survey participants were shown an image of a common SPF 30 sunscreen, Kundu and his team noted the following:

  • 38 percent knew the terminology associated with skin cancer protection
  • 23 percent were able to identify how well the sunscreen protected against sunburn
  • 7 percent knew the terminology linked to how well the product protected against early skin aging

“A lot of people seem unsure about the definition of SPF, too,” Kundu said. “Only 43 percent understood that if you apply SPF 30 sunscreen to skin 15 minutes before going outdoors, you can stay outside 30 times longer without getting a sunburn.”

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