The consumer protection watchdog organization Environmental Working Group is by and large satisfied that most sunscreen products do meet new federal labeling standards which were put in place last December.
The new rules established by the Food and Drug Administration require that sunscreens filter out both UVA and UVB rays. Previously many of the sunscreen products only filtered the sun-burning UVB rays, while not providing sufficient protection against the cancer and wrinkle-causing UVA rays.
Sunscreens must refrain from claiming that their products are “waterproof,” which FDA officials say is misleading. Not dealt with, however, by the new rules, is the misleading labeling of sun protection factors (SPF) above 50, which for a long time now have been seen by experts a problematic use of a numerical system to rate sunscreen products.
“The high SPF numbers are just a gimmick,” says Marianne Berwick, professor of epidemiology at the University of New Mexico. “Most people really don’t need more than an SPF 30 and they should reapply it every couple of hours.”
Berwick says sunscreen should be used in combination with hats, clothing and shade, which provide better protection against ultraviolet radiation.
“The challenge is that beyond 50 the increase in UV protection is relatively small,” says Dr. Henry Lim, chair of dermatology at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
In 2011 the FDA itself stated: “Labeling a product with a specific SPF value higher than 50 would be misleading to the consumer.” That year the FDA suggested a limit on SPF values at 50 since “there is not sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection for users.”
Companies that produce sunscreens, such as Johnson & Johnson say that there are measurable benefits provided by sunscreen products with higher ratings than 50. Due to the objections of the sunscreen product manufacturers the FDA is continuing to review the studies and other opinions about placing a cap on SPF ratings.