New rules correct misleading sunscreen labels

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Sunscreen makers must now conform to new Food and Drug Administration labeling rules that will make picking an effective product easier for consumers.

The two main changes address whether a product has full ultraviolet protection - that is, whether it protects both against ultraviolet B rays, the main cause of sunburn, and ultraviolet A rays, associated with skin cancer and aging - and does away with claims that sunscreens are waterproof.

Broad spectrum protection - Under the FDA's new labeling rules, the phrase "broad spectrum" means the product protects against both A and B ultraviolet rays, and has a sun protection factor of 15 or higher. Sunscreen that doesn't protect against both has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer, according to the FDA. Products that fall short will come with a warning label that says "Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."

Water resistance - Gone are the days when sunscreens are allowed to boast about resistance to water or sweat, which FDA says gives consumers a false sense of security. The rules now require makers to tell consumers how long the sunscreen can stand up to swimming and sweating. Labels must also suggest that users reapply sunscreen every 40 or 80 minutes, and are prohibited from making the claim that their product will provide more than two hours of protection without reapplication. Manufacturers are also now prohibited from identifying their products as sunblocks.

The FDA had been considering these changes for decades, and finally announced its new regulations last year, giving manufacturers about a year to comply.

More changes may be coming to correct misperceptions about SPF levels. Some sunscreens come with labels as high as 100 SPF, but most experts say they don't offer much more protection than SPF levels of 15 to 20. The FDA is considering capping the advertised number to SPF 50. The FDA is also reviewing the effectiveness of spray-on sunscreens.

Melanoma rates soar among young

The new labeling rules come at a time when melanoma rates are soaring among young adults. A study from April 2012 revealed an alarming rise in melanoma among people aged 18 to 39.

Over the past 40 years, rates of this potentially deadly skin cancer grew by 800 percent among young women and 400 percent among young men, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Researchers examined data on the 256 young adults in Olmstead County, Minn., who were diagnosed with melanoma between 1970 and 2009. Between 1970 and 1979, just 16 new cases, or 4.8 cases per 100,000 people, were diagnosed. But from 200O to 2010, 129 cases were recorded, or 30.8 cases per 100,000 people, reflects an enormous jump from the 1970s.

Although the lifetime risk of melanoma is about 1.5 times greater in males than in females, among young people this pattern is reversed, as the Mayo Clinic Proceedings study demonstrated. The authors observed that indoor ultraviolet tanning, which is much more popular among young women than young men, may account for the disproportionate increase in incidence among young women.

Common sunscreen myths

Wearing sunscreen can cause vitamin D deficiency.

There is some controversy regarding this issue, but few dermatologists believe (and no studies have shown) that sunscreens cause vitamin D deficiency. Also, vitamin D is available in dietary supplements and foods such as salmon and eggs, as well as enriched milk and orange juice.

If it's cold or cloudy outside, you don't need sunscreen.

This is not true. Up to 40 percent of the sun's ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth on a completely cloudy day. This misperception often leads to the most serious sunburns, because people spend all day outdoors with no protection from the sun.

Eighty percent of your sun exposure comes as a child, so it's too late to do anything now.

It appears that this universally promoted idea was based largely on a misinterpretation. A recent multi-center study showed that we get less than 25 percent of our total sun exposure by age 18. In fact, it is men over the age of 40 who spend the most time outdoors, and get the highest annual doses of UV rays. And since adult Americans are living longer and spending more leisure time outdoors, preventing ongoing skin damage will continue to be an important part of a healthy lifestyle.

Source: Skin Cancer Foundation

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