Understanding the FDA's new sunscreen rules

Sun safety
Wide-brimmed hats are one way to keep your baby's skin safe from the sun

Long, lazy beach days, backyard barbecues and pool parties are all part of the perfect sunny summer day. But while we’re soaking it all up, we should also take in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new sunscreen regulations that were announced on June 14 – the first change the organization has made to its recommendations in the past 30 years.

Up until now, sunscreen makers could claim that a product offers  “broad spectrum coverage,” but that phrase wasn’t clearly defined. Starting in 2012, this definition will be clearer:


  • Sunscreen can only be labeled “broad spectrum” if it protects people from both ultraviolet-A (UVA) and ultra violet-B (UVB) rays.
  • Because sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of less than 15 offers less comprehensive protection, it will now come with a warning label explaining that it may not protect skin from cancer, burn or premature aging.
  • Since sunscreen can be washed and worn off, the words “waterproof,” “sweatproof” and “sunblock” will no longer appear, and instead we’ll see the term “water resistant.” It’ll also offer directions on how frequently it should be reapplied.
  • SPF numbers will be lower. The SPF numbers had been confusing in that they’re not actually proportional. (SPF 30 is not actually twice the coverage as 15.) The FDA will cap sunscreens at SPF 50 (which is near 100 percent coverage), since SPFs 70-100 were doing little more than SPF 50.

Because the regulations won’t be in place until 2012, Stephen Gellis, MD, program director of Dermatology at Children’s Hospital Boston, suggests using common sense and keeping your own skin’s burning potential in mind when choosing a product. He says that sunscreen should be a second or third defense, and that staying out of the sun or covering up is a much more powerful way to keep your skin healthy.

Gellis also points out that even though the improved labels may lead to more informed choices and better protection, oxybenzone-infused sunscreen doesn’t come without its own risks. Most traditional, inorganic sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a potentially harmful compound that is absorbed into the skin. When exposed to sunlight, the ingredient could become a free radical, potentially leading to premature aging or even cancer.

Plenty of organic sunscreen options are available for those who prefer it.

“Sunscreens that contain oxybenzone allow the UV rays into your skin, and then use a chemical reaction to prevent it from burning,” says Gellis. “Organic sunscreens that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (rather than oxybenzone) reflect light away from the skin, rather than letting your skin absorb the UV rays and other chemicals.” The difference is that one allows the UV rays and sunscreen chemicals into your body and could be potentially harmful, while the other one doesn’t.

Gellis also suggests that when it comes to infants younger than 6 months, parents should be especially careful. “When you put sunscreen on a young baby, their skin absorbs much more than an adult’s,” he adds. “We shouldn’t rely on sunscreen to protect infants – they need to be out of the sun and covered up.” The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests dressing infants in lightweight clothing that covers their arms and legs, as well as wide-brimmed hats to shield a baby’s face and neck.