FDA Redefines “Sunblock”

New regulations will help us understand how effective our anti-sun damage regime really is

Craig Anderson won't let his pal Warren Smith paddle out with anything under SPF 50. Photo: Maassen

Few categories of people have the relentless relationship with the sun that surfers do. And while each of us have a different defense technique (some slather on the stuff from the drug store, others rub a Headhunter stick across their face, and the hyper-confident among us paddle out in a baseball cap), we all rely on the information that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require manufacturers to give us so we can make informed choices about how we protect ourselves from both wrinkles and skin cancer.

In a press release yesterday, the FDA announced long-overdue changes to sunscreen labeling that dermatologists agree will help you better understand how effective the sunblock you’re using really is. The new regulations spell out that a sunscreen must block UVA radiation (which “contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation) and UVB radiation (the chief cause of skin reddening and sunburn, which is also linked to causing cancer) in equal proportion to earn the title “broad spectrum.” The FDA also said that manufacturers must stop calling their products “waterproof” and “sweat-proof” because no sunscreens truly are, and that sunscreens must have be SPF 15 or higher to claim they help prevent sunburns and cancer. Additionally, the FDA is considering a proposal to limit SPF ratings to “50+, thus putting an end to the SPF rating wars that have seen products claim to be SPF 100 or more.

“The new FDA guidelines seem reasonable,” says Dr. James Beckett, M.D., a dermatologist and Santa Cruz surfer. “For quite some time, the dermatological community has been waiting for a revision, and the new standards should be helpful in determining which brands give both broad-spectrum protection (UVA and UVB) and are water-resistant.”

Beckett doesn’t recommend any particular brand of sunscreen, but advises that surfers should find one rated SPF 30 or greater that combines sunblock (containing titanium and/or zinc oxide) with sunscreen elements and water-resistance. Understanding the type of sun exposure unique to the surf community, he even goes a step further: “Surfers particularly should consider that wetsuits or sun protective clothing (specially treated rashguards, etc.) are still more effective than lotions.”