To end the quibbling, the new FDA rules would cap SPF at 50+, which blocks 98 percent of UVB rays. The SPF limit is hardly a done deal, though. Brands that market sunscreens with extremely high SPFs are, predictably, against imposing any sort of maximum. “We really believe that capping SPF [at 50] is unfair to the population,” says Yohini Appa, senior director of scientific affairs at Johnson & Johnson, which owns Neutrogena, a brand that recently introduced an SPF 90+. Appa insists that, no matter how small the advantage, every little bit counts. “I always say, ‘Skin never forgets a photon.’”
Rigel, too, thinks that there’s a viable argument for encouraging manufacturers to create higher and higher SPFs. Almost no one, he claims, wears the recommended amount of sunscreen, which is two milligrams per square centimeter. “Anyone who actually put that much on would look like Casper the Friendly Ghost,” he says. “Typically, people wear 20 to 40 percent of that amount. If [a product] is being underapplied, you’d more likely be getting close to the recommended protection with a higher SPF.”
IN OTHER WORDS In addition to stars and changing numbers, expect to see some tweaks to the wording on sunscreen labels. For years most dermatologists have agreed that there’s no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. “Those of us in clinical practice are very reluctant to trust that labeling because of the way patients actually use the product,” explains Read, who points out that swimmers generally towel dry after getting out of the ocean or pool, rubbing off much of their sunscreen. To reflect this reality, the FDA monograph will replace “waterproof” with “water resistant” or “very water resistant,” depending on a product’s ability to be effective after 40 or 80 minutes of splashing around in H2O.
Another change in terminology: SPF will be defined as “sunburn protection factor” rather than “sun protection factor,” to reflect the fact that SPF measures only protection against sunburn-inducing UVB rays. To make the point even clearer, SPF will be known on labels as UVB SPF.
Finally, like everything from Tylenol to Pinot Grigio, sunscreen will bear a warning label. Consumers will be advised that—no matter how much lotion they slather on—they should limit sun exposure, wear protective clothing and consistently reapply product. “What you really want to do is wear a tightly woven black wool sweater in the sun,” Rigel says with a laugh. “But nobody’s going to do that, so we know this triad of behaviors works.”
IN THE MIX New ingredients in the FDA pipeline promise better protection.
In addition to the FDA monograph, sunscreen manufacturers are buzzing about Tinosorb, a new, highly regarded ultraviolet light–blocking ingredient currently under FDA review. It has the rare ability to protect against both UVA and UVB rays and also to act as both a chemical and a physical shield, meaning that it absorbs and reflects UV light. In the U.S., Tinosorb is not yet FDA-cleared for use on the skin, but a version of the product has already been added to certain laundry detergents to protect clothing from the sun.