New FDA labeling requirements have taken the guesswork out of choosing an effective sunscreen this year. Products have to state how much protection they actually provide and be scientifically tested to back up those claims. While most people know the risks of skin cancer, no one ever thinks it will happen to them. In our practice at Contour Dermatology we detected more than 2,000 skin cancers last year alone, including nearly 100 cases of malignant melanoma – enough reason to read the label! Here’s what to look for:

Broad Spectrum

This is the most important thing to check. When the label proclaims a sunscreen to be broad spectrum that means it’s been tested and proven to protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. It used to be labels simply stated an SPF number. The problem is even a high SPF number only indicates a product’s protection from UVB – the shorter wavelengths responsible for sunburn. Everyone needs protection from longer UVA wavelengths too – the ones that penetrate deeper and cause skin cancer, brown spots and wrinkling. In order for a sunscreen to claim it protects against skin cancer and not just sunburn, the FDA now requires it must offer broad-spectrum protection.

Sun Protection Factor

As previously mentioned, SPF gauges protection from UVB radiation. At Contour Dermatology, we’ve always recommended a minimum SPF 15. This coincides with the FDA’s ruling a sunscreen must be SPF 15 or higher in order to claim it protects against skin cancer. A cap has been set on this number at SPF 50+ since anything over 50 doesn’t give you much more protection. While we recommend and sell sunscreens with an SPF 50+, please don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security and forget to reapply at least every two hours.

Water Resistance

If you’re going to be swimming or participating in an outdoor sport, definitely choose a water-resistant sunscreen. The more familiar terms “waterproof” or “sweatproof” you’re used to seeing on labels have been banned because the FDA has determined them misleading. New regulations require labels bearing the words “water-resistant” state how long you can expect to get the declared SPF level while swimming or sweating. Based on standardized testing, it’s either up to 40 or 80 minutes. Again, re-application is key.

A Warning Sign

Sunscreens that don’t pass the broad spectrum test – meaning they’ll only prevent sunburn and will not reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging – are required to include a warning specifying their sun-protective limitations. The same goes for sunscreens with an SPF lower than 15.


Unless you’ve recently purchased sunscreen, it’s probably best to toss old supplies not offering broad- spectrum protection. The FDA is currently studying the effectiveness of spray sunscreens. Remember, proper use of sunscreen and sun protective clothing not only helps prevent skin cancer and sunburn, it can protect against photoaging. Not all sunscreens are created equal. Read the label and avoid getting “burned” in more ways than one.

* Results and your patient experience may vary