Why is sunscreen so dang confusing?

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

Less than half of the people planning to flock to the beach this summer actually understand what SPF means, and only about one-in-ten knew what to look for on a label if they wanted a sunscreen that protects against early skin aging, according to a new study.

Writing in a recent edition of the journal JAMA Dermatology, researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago found that only 43 percent of those surveyed in a small-scale study fully understood the concept of sun protection factor (SPF).

“We need to do a better job of educating people about sun protection and make it easier for them to understand labels,” said lead author Dr. Roopal Kundu, an associate professor in dermatology at the Feinberg School and a dermatologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Sunscreens with SPF help protect the skin from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which are the primary cause of sunburns. However, research has shown that ultraviolet A (UVA), as well as UVB, can contribute to premature skin aging and skin cancers, leading the US Food and Drug Administration to call for new sunscreen label regulations in 2011.

Star-rating system easier to understand than SPF

Those new regulations, the Northwestern team said, were designed to emphasize the importance of “broad spectrum protection” sunscreens that protect skin from both UVA and UVB rays. As a way to gauge the public’s ability to evaluate sunscreen labels, the authors surveyed 114 men and women in attendance at the Northwestern Medicine dermatology clinic in 2014.

Approximately 80 percent of those polled said they had purchased sunscreen during the previous year. Seventy-five percent said preventing sunburn was one of the primary reasons they used the products, while roughly two-thirds said they did so to prevent skin cancer.

The most common reasons for purchasing a specific type of sunscreen were a high SPF value, sensitive skin formulation, and water and sweat resistance. Nearly half of those surveyed said they bought sunscreen with the highest SPF value available – a trend which Dr. Kundu called concerning, as it fools people into thinking they’re better protected than they really are.

Participants were also shown an image of the front and back of a common sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to measure their knowledge of product labels. Only 38 percent were able to correctly identify terminology associated with skin cancer protection, while about 23 percent were able to correctly identify how well the sunscreen protected against sunburn. Just seven percent could correctly identify how well the sunscreen protected against early skin aging.

Furthermore, Dr. Kundu said, “A lot of people seem unsure about the definition of SPF, too. Only 43 percent understood that if you apply SPF 30 sunscreen to skin 15 minutes before going outdoors, you can stay outside 30 times longer without getting a sunburn.” However, participants had an easier time determining the value of UVA protection as designated by a rating system of one to four stars, which the authors believe could be used to make labels more understandable.


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