Do Sunscreen Labels Have You Confused?

Skin cancer and sunburn protection via sunscreen may be hindered by label confusion

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Sunscreen and outdoor activities go hand-in-hand, especially in the summer. But when it comes to choosing a sunscreen, many people may be left in the dark.

A new study found that many people may not completely understand how sunscreen protects skin from sunburns and skin cancer.

"Despite the recent changes in labeling mandated by the US Food and Drug Administration, this survey study suggests that the terminology on sunscreen labels may still be confusing to consumers," wrote lead study author Roopal Kundu, MD, of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, and colleagues.

Coyle Connolly, DO, board certified dermatologist and president of Connolly Dermatology, who was not involved with the study, added, "It is important to understand the differences between UVA and UVB.  UVA penetrates deeper into the skin than UVB and is responsible for the signs of skin aging (wrinkles, age spots, red blotchy skin, etc),  UVB causes sunburns. Most importantly, both UVA and UVB are linked to the development of skin cancer."

Dr. Kundu and team looked at nearly 120 patients in the summer of 2014. Each patient was asked questions about his or her skin type, sunscreen purchasing habits and knowledge of sunscreen labels.

These researchers found that the majority of patients (82 percent) bought some type of sunscreen in 2013. The most important factors that influenced the patients' choice to wear sunscreen were the prevention of sunburns (75 percent) and the prevention of skin cancer (66 percent).

Sunscreens protect against two types of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. UVB rays damage the outside of the skin and cause sunburns. UVA rays are weaker but penetrate the skin deeper and cause skin aging.

The top three factors that influenced the type of sunscreen these patients chose were SPF value, sensitive skin formulas and resistance to water. SPF (sun protection factor) is a measure of how well a sunscreen blocks UVB rays from affecting the skin.

Dr. Kundu and team found that nearly 80 percent of patients read the sunscreen label. However, only 43 percent understood the definition of SPF.

Only 38 percent of patients could correctly indicate how well the sunscreen protected against skin cancer when reading the label. Most patients were also unable to indicate how the sunscreen protected against skin aging and sunburns.

Doctors may be able to play a role in clearing up the confusion, according to Dr. Kundu and team.

"There is an ongoing need for physicians to educate their patients about the need for protection against both UV-A and UV-B radiation in preventing skin cancer and sunburns," Dr. Kundu and colleagues wrote.

Dr. Connolly added "Consumers should look for a sunscreen that is marked broad spectrum coverage with an SPF of 30 or greater. A broad spectrum sunscreen protects against Both UVA and UVB exposure.  The SPF only refers to the protection offered by the UVB not the UVA component."

This study was published online June 17 in the journal JAMA Dermatology.

No funding sources or conflicts of interest were disclosed.


Review Date: 
June 16, 2015
Last Updated:
June 25, 2015