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In the past, the sun protection factor number (SPF) found on labels referred only to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, one type of skin-damaging sunlight component. Ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation also is a danger, contributing to premature aging and skin cancer risk. Current labeling requirements cover both UVB and UVA, which helps people better evaluate which products protect against all types of radiation from sun exposure.
For the sunscreen newbie, it helps to understand that SPF is a measure of the time it would take an individual to burn in the sun if they were not wearing sunscreen vs. the time it would take them to burn with sunscreen. But the scale isn’t linear, so SPF 30 is not twice the protection of SPF 15.
No sunscreens offer 100% protection, but over the course of a lifetime, even a difference of 1 to 2% in a product’s ability to block rays can add up. A product with an SPF 15 blocks about 94% of ultraviolet rays, an SPF 30 blocks 97%, and an SPF 45 blocks about 98% of rays. Other consumer protections include:
For consumers who prefer to reduce chemical exposure, many health experts advise sticking to physical sunscreens, which include only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide in the active ingredient list. However, this is not practical or affordable for many people, so keep in mind these other steps for reducing skin cancer risk:
("Questions and Answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S." U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Accessed June 16, 2011. Available at www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm258468.htm)