After 33 Years, FDA Finally Dives Into The Sunscreen Thing

From women's magazines to graduation-themed novelty songs, we're constantly advised to wear sunscreen — yet exactly what type we should buy has always been a bit confusing. In 1978, the government decided it should regulate sunscreens — but the FDA only got around to issuing new rules yesterday.

The new guidelines will change the labels you see on packages, and hopefully lead to more people slathering the stuff on with confidence. There are already some regulations in place for sunscreen, but currently the FDA only requires testing for ultraviolet B rays, according to the Washington Post. This is the basis of the SPF or "sun protection factor" we're all familiar with (if you need a refresher, this indicates how many times longer it will take someone to burn with the sunscreen, compared to a person using nothing). Skin cancer is primarily caused by UVB radiation, but UVA rays can also lead to cancer, sunburn, and early skin aging. Under the new regulations, only sunscreens proven to protect the skin from UVA and UVB rays can be labeled "broad spectrum," and only products with SPF 15 can claim to ward off sunburn, wrinkles, and cancer.

Sunscreens that don't provide adequate protection against skin cancer will now feature prominent warnings. The FDA is also banning several misleading terms from packaging. As you might have suspected, "waterproof" and "sweat-proof" don't really mean that the products will stay put on your skin. Those labels, along with the term "sunblock," are no more. Products can only be described as "water-resistant," and manufacturers must mention whether they last for 40 or 80 minutes.

Perhaps the most noticeable change will be the disappearance of anything higher than SPF 50 on store shelves. In recent years SPFs have reached triple digits, but there isn't really much difference between SPF 50 and SPF 100+. The FDA has been threatening to institute this SFP cap for years, and manufacturers can still submit data to argue their case for the higher numbers.

The new regulations won't go into effect until 2012, but FDA officials say they hope companies will start complying immediately. It shouldn't take us too long to go through the incorrectly labeled sunscreen we already own, since surely we're all drenching ourselves in the recommended golf-ball sized amount of lotion.

FDA Cracks Down On Sunscreens [Washington Post]
Confused By SPF? Take A Number [NYT]

Image via Wallenrock/Shutterstock.