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A four-star rating system isn't just for restaurants anymore. The Food and Drug Administration also wants to use it to rate sunscreens. The goal is to help consumers figure out just how much protection they're really getting.

NPR's Patty Neighmond reports.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND: Right now when you buy sunscreen, you know the SPF - that's the sun protection factor. That refers to UVB rays, the kind of ultraviolet rays from the sun which cause sunburn. And the dangers of those rays have been known for decades.

James Spencer is a dermatologist who practices in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Dr. JAMES SPENCER (American Academy of Dermatology): The original sunscreens were only interested in blocking UVB, so you could stay out longer and not get a burn. They were actually developed by the U.S. Navy during World War II.

NEIGHMOND: And people have been using sunscreen to protect against sunburn ever since. But now scientists understand that sun also produces other ultraviolet rays. They are called UVA rays, and they cause the skin to tan. As it turns out, these tanning rays damage the skin in the same way sunburn rays do.

Matthew Holman is a scientist at the FDA.

Dr. MATTHEW HOLMAN (Food and Drug Administration): It's only more recently that we've really understood the negative health consequence of UVA rays and their ability to cause skin cancer, as well as skin aging, such as, you know, wrinkles, sun spots on the skin.

NEIGHMOND: If the FDA proposal becomes final, sunscreen products would still list the SPF factor, but there would be a whole new rating system - a system of one to four stars that would measure protection against UVA rays as well. One star means the lowest protection, four the highest. And if the lotion you bought leaves you defenseless against the sun's UVA rays, then the label will tell you that too.

Dr. HOLMAN: It will include the statement, no UVA protection, on the front label of the sunscreen.

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

Dr. HOLMAN: Manufacturers will actually apply sunscreen to the backs of their subjects, the human subjects, and measure the level of protection provided by the sunscreen.

NEIGHMOND: So if the back gets really tan, that means not much protection, not many stars. If the back gets hardly tan at all, more protection, more stars. The public and the manufacturers have 90 days to discuss the new rating idea, and if it gets the final okay, many companies would likely do the testing and rating pretty quickly. And that means tubes of sunscreen with both ratings could be on store shelves as early as next summer.

Dermatologist James Spencer says he'd opt for an SPF of 30-plus along with a UVA rating of three or four stars. The new rating is terrific news, he says, but of course only if people follow the directions, using a lot more a lot more often than most of us are probably used to.

Dr. SPENCER: The big thing that I don't like and everybody doesn't like, they're not all day. They're only good for a few hours. That's inconvenient. I don't like having to put that goo on all over myself anymore than you do every few hours. But that's the way it is. We don't have an all-day product. Scientists are working on it. Someday we will have one. But for now, you got to reapply.

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

Patty Neighmond, NPR News.

YDSTIE: To get a look at UV rays as they penetrate the skin and to find a list of essential sunscreen ingredients, go to npr.org.

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