Sun Protection and Sunscreens

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quick GuideSun-Damaged Skin: Pictures of Sun Spots, Wrinkles, Sunburns

Sun-Damaged Skin: Pictures of Sun Spots, Wrinkles, Sunburns

Should everyone use sunscreen protection?

As a general rule, babies 6 months of age or younger should not have sunscreen applied to their skin because their bodies may not be capable of tolerating the chemicals in sunscreens. Instead, they should be kept away from sun exposure.

Everyone over 6 months of age should use a sunscreen regularly unless they and their doctors decide it would be better to protect the skin in other ways. Even with sunscreen use, wearing protective clothing and eyewear to shield UV rays are recommended. Sunscreen alone should not be regarded as complete protection from all UV radiation.

Can the labels on sunscreen products be trusted in the U.S.?

In the past, manufacturers' claims on sunscreen packaging were largely unregulated. However, in 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued labeling regulations for over-the-counter sunscreens. According to these FDA guidelines, sunscreen labels were prohibited from making claims that are considered unproven or absolute such as "waterproof" and "all-day protection." Earlier regulations for sunscreens concerned protection against sunburn, which is primarily caused by ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun, and did not address ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which is a cause of skin cancers and early skin aging.

According to the FDA ruling, all products that claim to provide broad-spectrum sun protection must comply with the following rules:

  1. If a sunscreen is labeled as "broad spectrum," it must pass a test that measures the product's ultraviolet A (UVA) protection relative to its ultraviolet B (UVB) protection. The label must indicate the degree of SPF or overall protection. Broad-spectrum SPF products with SPF values higher than 15 provide greater protection and may claim additional uses, as described below.
  2. Manufacturers of broad-spectrum sunscreens with SPF of 15 or higher may claim that these products reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun-protection measures. Non-broad-spectrum sunscreens (those that do not pass the broad spectrum test described above) and broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF value between 2 and 14 can only claim to help prevent sunburn.
  3. Manufacturers cannot label sunscreens as "waterproof" or "sweatproof" or identify their products as "sunblocks" because these claims are exaggerations. No sunscreen can completely block the sun's rays. According to the FDA ruling, "Sunscreens also cannot claim to provide sun protection for more than two hours without reapplication or to provide protection immediately after application (for example, instant protection) without submitting data to support these claims and obtaining FDA approval."
  4. Manufacturers of sunscreens that claim to be water resistant must indicate on the product label whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes ("water resistant") or 80 minutes (labeled "very water resistant") while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Products that are not water resistant must contain instructions on the label telling consumers to use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.

The Environmental Working Group, in a 2015 study of over 1,700 sun-protection products, released a report stating that 80% of these products offer inferior sun protection or contain "worrisome" ingredients. They also note that most SPFs max out at about SPF 50 despite the fact that many sunscreens on the market claim to have much higher SPF ratings.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/30/2016

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