5 Ways to Tell if a Sunscreen Product is a Scam

Jen Hayes, MD|May 19, 2016

Sunscreen Scam_main

By far the most important lifestyle measure I encourage in my patients here in our Santa Rosa Area practice is excellent sun protection.  Wearing sunscreen every single day is, without question, our best weapon against sunburn, cancer and wrinkles.  It should be worn rain or shine, regardless of how long you think you will be outdoors.  You may be surprised to know that the FDA regulates terms and labels for sunscreen.  Your sunscreen does not meet FDA approval or guidelines and may be a scam if:

  1. It has an SPF of less than 15
  2. Has the warning label: Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert"
  3. "Sweatproof"
  4. "Waterproof"
  5. "Sunblock"

But how do you go about picking out a sunscreen? If these are the things you should avoid, what should you look for?  

How do you know which sunscreens are the best at protecting you from harmful UV rays?  

Some of you may not like the feeling of sunscreen.  Some may think that it makes them “break out” into pimples.  I will tell you that finding the right sunscreen can involve a lot of trial and error.  Let me help. I'm going to tell you what my favorites are and make some suggestions to help you narrow your search. I'm also going to empower you by telling you what ingredients to look for.  I will give you some guidance as to what sunscreens to avoid, particularly those that are not FDA-approved. 

By now, most of you know that sunscreen is labeled based upon its SPF (Sun Protection Factor).

Products with an SPF 15 and above do a pretty good job of protecting your skin from sunburn. An SPF 15 means that if it takes 20 minutes for your skin to get pink without sunscreen, it will take 15 times longer to burn with SPF 15.  

SPF 15 filters out about 93% of sun rays, SPF 30 filters out about 97% and SPF 50 about 98%.  You may think 93% and 98% sound like pretty close numbers but that extra 5% of UV ray exposure every day can really add up.  

Keep in mind, SPF specifically reflects the ability to protect against UVB (sunburn) rays, not UVA.  In order for sunscreen to effectively protect against both types of UV rays, it must be labeled as “broad-spectrum”.  It’s important the sunscreen block both UVA and UVB.  UVB rays cause sunburn and wrinkles, UVA rays contributes mostly to wrinkles. Both rays contribute to cancer so it’s important to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. 

There are two types of sunscreen – physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.  Physical (mineral blockers) sunscreens include ingredients such as zinc or titanium.  These bounce UV rays off of the skin.  I always recommend my patients here in our Santa Rosa Practice choose this type of sunscreen whenever possible. Chemical sunscreens convert UV rays into heat.  Chemical ingredients that block UVB rays include PABA derivatives, salicylates, and/or cinnamates.  Those that block UVA rays include ingredients such as avobenzone or ecamsule.   Based on FDA regulations, sunscreens that are less than SPF 15 or that are not broad spectrum must now say “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert:  Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. These products have been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.” Look for this label and avoid these sunscreens.  Also avoid sunscreens that label themselves as “sweatproof”, “waterproof” or “sunblock”.  These are not FDA-approved terms.

Being able to sweat or swim with sunscreens on is also a very important consideration for those of us that play sports or swim.  Only two amounts of time are “valid times” based on FDA regulations: 80 minutes or 40 minutes.  Whichever sunscreen you choose, always reapply after swimming or sweating excessively, regardless of what the label says.

Need help choosing a sunscreen?  Visit our page about Sunscreen and Sunscreen Products.  There is lots of helpful information and a guide to help you pick the perfect sunscreen for you!  


Dr. Hayes - Board Certified Dermatologist       

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