Study shows Consumers are Confused about Sunscreens. How do you know which is Right For You?

Confused about which sunscreen to buy?

You’re not alone: a recent JAMA Dermatology study [1] found we’re really dumb when it comes to understanding sunscreen labels.

Just how dumb are we? The study found that only 43% of us understand the definition of sun factor protection (SPF)*.

Worse, only 7% of us know how to tell how much protection a sunscreen product has against early skin aging.

These levels of confusion are alarming given that rates of skin cancer have been increasing in both men and women since 2002 [2].

Why are We so Confused? 

Paradoxically, because science has made significant advances in understanding how the sun can damage skin cells, sunscreen labels have become more complicated, evolving past a simple SPF rating to listing a bunch of confusing ingredients that somehow offer various levels of broad UVA & UVB spectrum protection – it’s no wonder the average consumer is now more than just a little confused.

“We need to do a better job of educating people about sun protection and make it easier for them to understand labels,” said Dr. Roopal Kundu, lead author of the study.

One way to make sunscreen labels easier to understand would be to have a simple star-rating system for UVA protection along with the current SPF system for UVB protection. When test subjects in the JAMA study where shown a 4-star-rating system for UVA protection, nearly 80% could accurately identify how much UVA protection a particular star-rating indicated and 90% could accurately determine the level of UVB protection when represented as an SPF value, all a far cry from the accuracy people have now, with current sunscreen labels.

How to Choose a Sunscreen

While sunscreen labels have become more complicated, choosing the appropriate sunscreen is a relatively simple matter if you keep these three criteria in mind:

  1. For UVB protection, choose a product with a SPF of at least 30. If you’re going to be in the sun all day, choose one with a SPF of at least 45, ideally 50.
  2. The sunscreen should be waterproof, esp. if you’re wearing it during the hot, sweaty, summer months.
  3. For UVA protection, there is no star-rating system, yet, so look for a product that contains at least one of the following  ingredients: ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, or zinc oxide.

Did You Know?

More than 90% of the visible changes commonly attributed to skin aging are caused by the sun [3], but those who use sunscreen daily show 24% less skin aging than those who don’t [4].

* SPF tries to estimate the amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned. For example, an SPF of 15 would allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer than you could without protection. SPF is only an estimate because how quickly you’ll burn depends upon a number of factors including the time of the year, the time of day, your geographic location, and weather conditions.

  1. Betty Y. Kong, Sarah L. Sheu, Roopal V. Kundu. Assessment of Consumer Knowledge of New Sunscreen Labels. JAMA Dermatology, Published online June 17, 2015. []
  2. Kohler, BA, Sherman RL, Howlader N, Jemal, A, Ryerson AB, Henry KA, Boscoe, FP, Cronin KA, Lake A, Noone, A-M, Henley, SJ, Eheman, CR, Anderson, RN, Penberthy, L. Annual report to the nation on the status of cancer, 1975–2011. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2015;107(6 []
  3. Gilchrest BA. Skin and aging process. CRC Press. 1984; 124. []
  4. Hughes MCB, Williams GM, Baker P, Green AC. Sunscreen and prevention of skin aging: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med 2013 June; 158 (11):781-790 []