MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In this country, the Food and Drug Administration is ordering makers of sunscreens to stop calling their products waterproof. It's also demanding they clear up the confusion about what sun protection factor, or SPF, really means.
The rule doesn't go into effect for another year, and as NPR's Nancy Shute reports, that could lead to more confusion at the beach and the pool.
NANCY SHUTE: It's still early in the swim season, but the can of sunscreen on the lifeguard chair at Mohican pool in Bethesda, Maryland, is almost empty. The label promises an SPF of 30, but lifeguard Justin Masters(ph) isn't quite sure what that number means.
Mr. JUSTIN MASTERS (Lifeguard): Sun protection something, sun proof (unintelligible).
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHUTE: What does it protect you from?
Mr. MASTERS: The harmful UVA or UVB rays, or I don't know, something like that.
SHUTE: Masters is almost right. The SPF, or sun protection factor, measures a sunscreen's ability to prevent sunburn. That's caused by ultraviolet B light. But scientists now know that ultraviolet A is a major cause of aging and also contributes to skin cancer. And the SPF on the label doesn't tell you anything at all about UVA protection.
Michael Hansen is a senior scientist at Consumers Union. It's one of the groups that has been pushing the FDA for years to require better labels.
Mr. MICHAEL HANSEN (Senior Scientist, Consumers Union): Consumers might have a misinterpretation, not realizing that they're not being fully protected.
SHUTE: The new FDA rule should help. It will require any sunscreen that calls itself broad spectrum to do a good job against both UVB and UVA. That sounds good to Mohican pool manager Ellen Hearle. She's 21 years old.
Ms. ELLEN HEARLE (Manager, Mohican Pool): I already have some wrinkles on my forehead from doing six summers of this.
SHUTE: She's also like a sunscreen that didn't wash off in the pool.
Ms. HEARLE: I definitely need something that's waterproof because we're going in the water a lot.
SHUTE: But the FDA says there's no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen. They all wash in water or with sweat. Starting next summer, the best a label will be able to claim is that a sunscreen is water resistant.
That leaves the question of how to avoid cancer-causing rays while manufacturers retool sunscreens and labels. David Leffell is a professor of dermatology at Yale University. He says people still do have good options for this summer.
Mr. DAVID LEFFELL (Professor of Dermatology, Yale University): Number one: Make sure that your sunscreen has a sun protection factor or SPF of 30.
SHUTE: Number two...
Mr. LEFFELL: Make sure that it says broad spectrum.
SHUTE: Protecting against both UVA and UVB. For UVA, Leffell says to look for products that contain zinc oxide or avobenzone. Recommendation number three...
Mr. LEFFELL: Whether the label says sweatproof or waterproof, you should reapply every couple of hours while you're active outdoors anyways because sunscreen does wear off.
SHUTE: And Leffell says it is possible to be well-protected without using any sunscreen at all.
Mr. LEFFELL: A T-shirt, a white T-shirt, gives you a sun protection factor of six, which frankly is not very helpful at all. But there are so many products out there, sun-protective clothing products that are rated for their sun protection and don't look like prison uniforms anymore. They actually look like real clothing.
SHUTE: Real clothing that perhaps even a lifeguard would wear, and that's a good thing because skin cancer rates in young people are on the rise.
Mr. LEFFELL: We're seeing it in women in their 20s, which used to be unheard of.
SHUTE: The bottom line: There are still very good reasons to use sunscreens, even if they are less than perfect.
Nancy Shute, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.