Study shows consumers still find sunscreen labels confusing |

Study shows consumers still find sunscreen labels confusing

Teresa Ristow
A recent study suggests many people are still confused by the meaning of SPF, UVA and UVB information on sunscreen labels. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen with an SPF above 30 and broad spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays. The organization also provides detailed explanations of what the acronyms mean for your skin on its website,
Courtesy Photo

Though its been more than two years since the United States Food and Drug Administration rewrote the rules on sunscreen labeling, many consumers are still confused at what the numbers and letters on bottles mean.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Dermatology publication in June revealed that consumers don’t have a clear understanding of the meaning of SPF and difference between numeric SPF levels, the difference between UVA and UVB ray protection and the purpose of “broad spectrum” products.

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

Kundu is a professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Fienberg School of Medicine, the organizer of the study.

According to the FDA, the best sunscreen to use is broad-spectrum because it protects against both UVA and UVB light.

UVB light is primarily responsible for sunburn, while UVA light penetrates the skin more, causing tanning, but also responsible for premature skin aging, skin cancer and other damage.

“UVA are actually higher energy wavelengths that cause tanning, but they both (UVA and UVB) cause skin cancer,” said Sandy Eivins, a board certified dermatologist and owner of The Dermatology Center of Steamboat Springs.

While some older sunscreens only provided UVB protection, most sunscreens now provide broad-spectrum protection from both types of rays, Eivins said.

“Research found that UVA is also a carcinogen, so they’ve tried to improve sunscreens by blocking both of them,” she said.

Eivins said that beyond broad-spectrum protection, she thinks the best sunscreens are those that contain zinc, or micronized zinc.

“I tell people that they really need to look for a sunscreen that has a zinc base,” she said.

Eivins also said that a sunscreen with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of 30 is good to use.

She explained that the SPF number describes the amount of time a person can spend in the sun before expecting to get burned.

For a person who normally burns in 10 minutes of time in the sun without sunscreen on, an SPF of 15 would block harmful rays for 150 minutes (10×15), Eivins said.

In addition to considering SPF, Eivins said it’s important to remember to use a generous portion of sunscreen — about one ounce each time — and to reapply every two hours.

“You have to reapply,” Eivins said. “Within two hours, the SPF is pretty much gone.”

Eivins emphasized that in addition to sunscreen use, people should consider wearing sun-protective clothing and limiting time spent in the sun.

“People should realize sunscreens aren’t perfect, and you should use them in combination with limiting sun exposure and covering up,” Eivins said.

Locally, The Memorial Hospital Medical Clinic, 785 Russell St., offers sample packets of sunscreen available to all.

More information on sunscreen labeling and sunscreen use guidelines is available from the FDA at

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

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