FDA Suggests New Sunscreen Standards

A young boy with sunscreen all over his face and stomach.

New FDA standards would help people know how much protection they are really getting from sunscreen. Laureen Morgane/zefa/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Laureen Morgane/zefa/Corbis

It turns out that a four-star rating system isn't just for the movies. The Food and Drug Administration also hopes to use stars to rate sunscreens.

Sunscreen products tell customers their SPF, or sun protection factor. That protection factor refers to UVB rays, the kind of ultraviolet rays from the sun that cause sunburn. The dangers of those rays have been known for decades.

"The original sunscreens were only interested in blocking UVB so you could stay out in the sun longer," explains James Spencer, a dermatologist who practices in St. Petersburg, Fla. "They were actually developed by the U.S. Navy during World War II."

People have been using sunscreen to protect against sunburn ever since. But now, scientists understand that the sun also produces other ultraviolet rays, called UVA rays. UVA rays cause the skin to tan – and it turns out these "tanning" rays damage the skin in the same way sunburn rays do.

"It's only recently we really understood the negative health consequences of UVA rays, and their ability to cause skin cancer as well as premature aging of the skin, like wrinkles and sun spots," says Matthew Holman, a scientist at the FDA.

The New Rating System

If the FDA proposal becomes final, sunscreen products would still list the SPF factor, but there would be a new, four-star rating system. One star would mean the sunscreen offers the lowest protection; four stars would mean the highest. And if the lotion leaves you completely defenseless against the sun's UVA rays, the label will tell you that, too. According to Holman, it will say "no UVA protection" on the front label of the product.

In order to figure out which rating each sunscreen gets, Holman says companies would have to test the sunscreen both in the laboratory and on human volunteers.

"Manufacturers will actually apply sunscreen to the backs of human subjects and measure the level of protection provided by the sunscreen," Holman explains.

If the back gets really tan, that means not much protection — and not many stars. If the back hardly gets tan at all, that means more protection and more stars.

The public and the manufacturers have 90 days to discuss the new rating idea. And, if it gets a final approval, many companies would likely do the testing and rating pretty quickly. That means tubes of sunscreen with both ratings could be on store shelves as early as next summer.

But It Only Works If You Use It

Dermatologist James Spencer says he would opt for an SPF of 30-plus, along with a UVA rating of three or four stars.

"Why not choose the best?" he says.

Dr. Spencer says the new rating is terrific news, but only if people follow the directions, using a lot more sunscreen a lot more often than most of us are probably used to.

"The big thing I don't like is they don't last all day; they're only good for a few hours," Spender says. "It's inconvenient. I don't like having to put that goo on any more than you do, but that's the way it is. Scientists are working on an 'all-day' sunscreen. Someday, we'll have that. But, for now, you got to re-apply."

Spencer says even the best sunscreen can't protect you completely. People should limit their time in the sun and wear protective clothing.