Summer’s here, bringing lots of time for fun in the sun but, before heading out to the sand and the surf, sun worshipers should learn more about the sunscreens they rely on, including what’s really meant by those SPF numbers, according to a spokesperson for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Two years ago, the FDA proposed new labeling requirements for sunscreens in response to confusing and often misleading ads and labels found on readily available sunscreen products.  Even though sunscreen makers say they comply with current FDA regulations, the agency says new regulations are expected in September and manufacturers will have to comply with the new rules within 18 months after their finalization.

One of the most common misconceptions about sunscreen is the SPF, or sun protection factor, usually associated with a very prominently displayed number on the product’s packaging.  Most consumers think the bigger the number, the more complete the protection, but this just isn’t true, says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst for the non-profit consumer watchdog, the Environmental Working Group.

According to Lunder, SPF numbers apply only to UVB (ultraviolet B) rays and don’t even take UVA (ultraviolet A) into consideration.  UVB rays burn the skin, a situation that increases one’s likelihood of developing skin cancer.  UVA rays are dangerous, too, however, and penetrate much deeper, where they cause premature aging of the skin and the development of cancer.

Many consumers think using an SPF 15 product, for example, means it’s OK to stay in the sun 15 times longer than is safe without it.  What the SPF 15 really means is that unprotected skin would probably start burning 15 times faster than if a thick coating of the sunscreen isn’t slathered on lavishly.

About those UVA rays, the new rules the FDA proposes will call for a four-star scale of protection.  In the meantime, the most effective protection is provided by products that say ‘broad spectrum’ on the label, a term which implies protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

Other sunscreen facts that might save your skin this summer include:

  • Active ingredients are as important as SPF.  Ingredients currently approved by the FDA include avobenzone, ecamsule (also listed as Mexoryl SX), oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide.  Broad-spectrum sunscreens will contain at least one, but preferably more, of these key ingredients.
  • There’s no such thing as ‘waterproof’ sunscreen.  It all gets rubbed, washed, or sweated off and needs to be reapplied often.
  • There’s no such thing as ‘sunblock,’ either.  These products do screen, but they do not block, the sun’s rays from damaging the skin.  Both terms – waterproof and sunblock – will be banned from use when the new FDA rules are adopted but, if certain tests are passed successfully, products can be labeled ‘resistant’ or ‘very resistant’ to washing away with normal use.
  • ‘Baby’ formula sunscreens should never be used on babies.  Before applying these products to infants younger than 6 months, the child’s pediatrician should be consulted.  The fine print on the label says so and so do most pediatricians.  If asked, most doctors will say babies that young don’t need to be in the sun in the first place but, if it cannot be avoided, put a hat on your baby, put a canopy over his stroller, and dress him in protective clothing.  Even then, when sun exposure is absolutely unavoidable, do use a little sunscreen formulated for babies on his hands and face but limit sun exposure as much as possible.

For anyone of any age, the very best protection against damage from the sun is to limit the amount of time spent directly in it.  Whenever possible, cover up with hats, sunglasses, long sleeves and pants, and enjoy time in the shade.  These common-sense approaches to sun protection are so important that even the new sunscreen labels will include them.