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Consumers Stuck With Murky Sunscreen Labels Another Summer

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Anyone who has gone to the drug store knows that the labels on sunscreens can be confusing. The sun protection factor, or SPF, numbers are all over the place. Some say "sunblock"; others says "sunscreen." What's the difference between "waterproof" and "water-resistant?"

Well, after years of delays, the federal government finally announced a plan to do something about it last year. The idea was to make it easier for consumers to pick the best product to protect themselves from skin cancer and skin damage.

This was all supposed to happen this month. But just as the summer was about to start, the FDA announced it was delaying the new requirements until December.

The requirements include:

  • Only sunscreens that protect against both ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) light could be labeled "broad spectrum," which means they provide the best protection against skin cancer.
  • Sunscreens that don't have SPF of at least 15 would have to have big warning labels that say they don't protect against skin cancer or "premature skin aging."
  • Terms like "sunblock," "waterproof" and "sweat-proof" would be banned. Sunscreens would be permitted to claim that they are "water-resistant" but would have to specify how long they work — either 40 or 80 minutes.

"After we published all these requirements, we received data showing that manufacturers wouldn't be able to fully implement all the requirements until December of this year for most products," says the FDA's Reynold Tan.

The companies that make sunscreens say they just couldn't get it done in time.

"It's not a simple redesign of the label. We're talking about a huge number of products. Companies would need to order new components; they would need to perhaps get new molds. So that requires a re-engineering of manufacturing equipment," says Farah Ahmed of the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the industry.

Ahmed says there would have been a shortage of sunscreen this summer if the deadline hadn't been extended.

But critics say the industry had plenty of time to comply.

"It seems to me that the FDA has had a long enough time and the industry has had a long enough time to change those labels so they reflect the facts," says Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey of New York, who has been pushing the new rules.

"What this means is that the foot-dragging will allow yet another summer to go by without consumers having adequate information to protect themselves and their family," she says.

Health experts say the delay is more than just frustrating — it's putting lives at risk.

"We have, in a sense, an epidemic of skin cancer in this country. We're now seeing over 2 million cases of skin cancer," says J. Leonard Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society. "We're also seeing a rise in melanomas. And melanoma is a very serious form of skin cancer. And we're seeing that rise in young people, particularly in young women."

For now, consumers will just have to try to do their best. Some sunscreens that meet the new guidelines are starting to show up on store shelves. But consumers have to look very carefully to figure that out.

"Make sure that the broad spectrum term appears right next to the SPF number, either directly to the left of it, or right on top of it. And it has to be in the same font, meaning it has to be in the same type size, same color, generally the same appearance as the SPF number," Tan says.

Tan and others stress that no one should rely on sunscreens anyway.

Here's the best advice:

Cover up — with a hat, long sleeves and pants — and spend more time in the shade. That works way better than sunscreen any day.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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