SPF May Be a Misleading Number When It Comes to Actual UV Protection

An advocacy group claims that some sunscreens prevent the burn, but not the damage.

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Before you hit the beach, chances are (we hope) you slather on lots of sunscreen. But depending on which sunscreen you use, that might not be enough protection. An advocacy group claims that some sunscreen makers focus on masking the redness that comes from a sunburn rather than protecting against the UV rays that lead to long-term sun damage and skin cancer.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that focuses on toxic chemicals in food and consumer products, sent a letter to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Robert Califf, urging him to overhaul how sunscreen is tested. (A quick note: The EWG is controversial in some circles, and some critics say the group is too alarmist and spends too much time stoking fear rather than explaining scientific research.)

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Chemist David Andrews, a senior scientist with the EWG, wrote a blog post arguing that a bottle of SPF 100 sunscreen probably doesn't give you the protection it claims. "SPF is an outdated, subjective concept, based on when a person's skin starts to turn red," he wrote. "The tests can be gamed, and it's safe to say that normal people do not use sunscreen in test conditions — applying sunscreen before blasting themselves with high-intensity, indoor UV lights."

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Skin redness isn't the only side effect of getting too much sun. Lasting skin damage is what we really should be worried about, because that can lead to skin cancer. UVB rays burn the surface of your skin, and UVA rays can sometimes cause even deeper damage. But because of the outdated way we measure SPF, sunscreen makers can allegedly game the system by adding ingredients that reduce redness, but are unproven when it comes to overall sun protection. So in the EWG's letter, the group urges the FDA to ban any advertised value over 50, because those numbers are, in the group's view, misleading.

This is just the latest in a string of sunscreen controversies. A July 2016 study published in JAMA Dermatology found that most popular sunscreens don't meet dermatologists' standards because they aren't water or sweat resistant. And in May, Consumer Reports found that many sunscreens that said they were "water resistant" didn't actually hold up to water in a lab, and sunscreens that label themselves as "chemical-free" or "mineral" sunscreens didn't perform as well. And in general, 57 percent of sunscreens that were tested didn't provide as much protection as advertised.

The Personal Care Council, a trade group that represents sunscreen manufacturers, released a statement in response to the EWG's guide to sunscreens, calling the group's claims untrue:

"The claims made by EWG could keep consumers from using sunscreen altogether. Sun protection and sunscreen use are critical to preventing skin cancer and premature skin aging. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, approximately 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation. Daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent. […] Although the EWG report questions whether UVA rays are screened in U.S. products, broad spectrum sunscreens with SPF 15 and greater must protect against both UVB and UVA radiation. To achieve high SPF protection values, products have to screen both UVA and UVB radiation."

The Takeaway

Totally confused about sunscreen now? Don't fret — and don't stop using it! Sunscreen is still an important part of a healthy skin regimen, so you should be using (and reapplying!) it daily. You just don't have to shell out the big bucks for sunscreens with sky-high SPFs or fancy added ingredients. Instead, find an affordable formula you like (here's a simple guide to get you started) with an SPF around 30 to 50 and slather, smile, repeat.

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