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posted Jun 18, 2011, 5:57 AM by

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is upping the ante to protect sun bathers. Instead of leaving consumers to their own devices to interpret the meaning of terms such as "waterproof" and "broad spectrum," the agency wants to place more responsibility on sunscreen suppliers to prove their claims.

Starting in summer 2012, over-the-counter sunscreen brands can no longer tout claims about products without lab testing to back them up, according to a recent FDA report.

To create greater accountability, authorities will ban companies from labeling products higher than SPF 50and will enforce standards on what constitutes "broad spectrum," or coverage against both UVA and UVB rays. But as the report highlights, not all sunscreens are created equal.

For starters, sunscreens vary in their ability to block UVA and UVB radiation. Though UVB rays usually receive most of the blame for sunburn, UVA rays can damage skin and can increase the risk of developing cancer as well. Protecting from both types is commonly referred to as "broad spectrum."

With the new labeling standards, companies whose products are shown to provide broad spectrum protection with SPF 15 or higher will be able to claim so on labels. These companies can also claim their products help reduce skin cancers and aging, while those with only UVB-blocking products will be restricted to stating their products "help prevent sunburn."

New FDA sunscreen labeling

A graphic highlighting the new FDA labeling rules. Note the terms "broad spectrum" and "water resistant."

In addition, language such as "water-proof" and "sweat-proof" will not be allowed because they mislead consumers into thinking sunscreen does not wear off. Since companies can measure the amount of time their products remain effective on the skin, we'll see the term "water resistant" instead, with a numerical representation -- 40 or 80 minutes -- of how long the product typically remains on the skin when a person is active in the water.

So why change federal oversight now?

Apparently, evidence that companies were exaggerating claims has accumulated for years, but the FDA lacked the data needed to make the next step toward tighter regulation. Still, the United States lags behind Europe in monitoring sunscreen claims.

Overall, though, limiting skin damage is still a personal responsibility. It's important to keep in mind that certain medications can affect your sensitivity to the sun and that the FDA recommends applying products 30 minutes before exposure in order to reap the benefits of full protection