Learn the New Rules for Sunscreen

July 3rd, 2013

This summer, parents concerned about protecting children’s delicate skin will notice a new look to sun protection products. By the end of 2012, most sunscreen sold in the U.S. had to comply with new labeling rules from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The aim? Helping consumers make informed purchases based on clear, accurate information.

When choosing products, the language of sun protection can be confusing. Here’s what parents should know about the changes:



Previously, products qualified for the SPF label as long as they blocked UVB rays.

NEW: Broad Spectrum SPF
Look for products labeled Broad Spectrum SPF, which are proven to block both UVB rays (which cause sunburn) AND a proportionate amount of UVA rays (which age skin and may lead to skin cancer.) FDA recommends choosing a Broad Spectrum SPF of 15 or higher, and reminds that only Broad Spectrum sunscreens with SPF 15 or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.

OLD: Sunblock
Sun “block” was misleading language, since even the highest broad spectrum SPFs, applied with correct amounts and frequency, cannot block 100% of UV light.

NEW: Sunscreen
New labels must now market “sunscreen” rather than “sunblock.” Products absorb or reflect UV light, rather than blocking it.

OLD: Waterproof / Sweatproof
This old language misled consumers into believing that sunscreen products could continue to work continuously in the presence of water or sweat.

NEW: Water-Resistant
Products can be labeled water-resistant, not waterproof. Look for the water-resistant label AND a new required statement telling you the length of time the product will stay effective with water or sweat in the mix. This is the max length of time after which you must reapply the product to dry skin to get protection. The upper limit is 80 minutes.

OLD: Drug Facts? Maybe.

NEW: Drug Facts, Required.
All sunscreens must now include standard “drug facts” information on the back and/or side of the container.

While learning about changes to sunscreen labels, also be sure to review these sun safety reminders:

  • Limit sun exposure, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense.
  • Use clothing to cover skin and protect eyes, including broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses for children.
  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors, allowing it to fully absorb into the skin.
  • Use enough sunscreen to cover all exposed areas, including the face, nose, ears, feet, hands, and backs of the knees. Rub it in well.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, even if you stay dry. Reapply more often if you’re sweating or in contact with water.
  • Don’t save sunscreen just for bright summer days. Even on a cloudy day, 80% of the sun’s rays pass through the clouds, and skin damage can be cumulative over time.
  • FDA warns that SPF over 50 doesn’t necessarily guarantee more sun protection. The agency is considering limiting product SPFs to a maximum of 50, in an effort to protect consumers against a false sense of security and the impression that higher-SPF products don’t need to be applied as frequently.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents to look for a new UVA “star” rating system on sunscreen labels. In this system, one star is low UVA protection, two stars is medium, three is high, and four stars is the highest UVA protection available in an over-the-counter sunscreen product. This system provides an additional layer of information for making product choices.
  • Think twice about sunscreen sprays. FDA has asked for more data on these products. Concerns include the possibility that not enough sunscreen covers the skin to give adequate protection, and that the spray can be inhaled.
  • AAP recommends using sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for sensitive areas of children’s bodies, like the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears, and shoulders. These products stay visible on the skin after you rub them in, but some come in fun colors for kids.
  • Don’t use last year’s lotion. Products lose their effectiveness over time, as chemical ingredients begin to break down or separate. FDA says you should store sunscreen in a dim, cool place, because high temperatures can affect the product.
  • AAP advises parents to keep infants under six months out of direct sunlight, using shade and protective clothing. If protecting clothing and shade are not available for an infant under six months of age, AAP recommends using sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face and backs of hands.
  • Remember: Children need extra protection from the sun’s potentially dangerous rays. An estimated 80% of lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 18 – and research suggests that two or more blistering sunburns as a child or teen significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

Learn more about FDA changes to sunscreen labels in this Q&A at the agency’s website. Find out more about sunburn prevention and treatment in this article on AAP’s parent-friendly site. Stay safe and have fun in the sun this summer!