Sunscreens protect our skin from painful sunburns and they reduce our risk of developing skin cancer from long term exposure, but like most products that are designed to make a profit in a competitor filled arena, the claims made by these products evolved into mere hype geared towards gaining market share.
SPF numbers and terms like "broad spectrum" were being used to make all products sound protective but, when put to the test, many of them did not offer the level of protection they promised so the FDA had to step in and force changes that guard consumers from false claims.
The mandated changes took effect in December of 2012 so, if you have a product that was purchased before that time, it is not certain that the packaging reflects the content. These new label requirements will help you make an informed decision:
Sun Protection Factor
Sun Protection Factor or "SPF" refers to the product's ability to keep your skin from getting red. It tells you how long you have before you start to burn, but the redness is just an indication of a sunburn or sun poisoning, the SPF in and of itself does not protect you from developing skin cancer.
UVA and UVB Blockage
The sun emits two types of rays, UVA and UVB, and we need to protect our skin from both types of radiation because both of them can cause skin cancer.
Broad Spectrum means that the product blocks both UVA and UVB rays and therefore protects against skin cancer. Prior to the 2012 labeling changes, many sunscreens claimed to be "broad spectrum" even though they contained very little of UVA or UVB protection. Products that use the term "broad spectrum" now must prove that they offer high levels of both types of protection.
Waterproof, Sweatproof or Water Resistant
No sunscreen is truly waterproof or sweatproof so they are no longer allowed to make these claims. Sunscreens may only claim to be "water resistant" and they must provide information regarding when to reapply the product (between 40 and 80 minutes).
Sunscreen products come in a variety of forms including lotions, sprays, wipes, shampoos and it is now commonly found in makeup. The new labeling requirements only apply to products that are specifically intended to protect against the sun, nothing else. This means that a sunscreen lotion or a sunscreen wipe is regulated; shampoos or other multi-function cosmetics are not so, do not rely on these products as your primary source of protection.