Sunscreen Labels, Decoded
Everything you need to know before you stock up
Sunscreen labeling requirements have been shifting rapidly (in the consumer's favor). It's a good thing, but a bit difficult to understand. To get as smart as we can before we stock up for the summer, we picked the brain of our eco expert, Honest Company co-founder Christopher Gavigan—not only because his background as former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World makes him an authority on the subject, but also because most of us here at StrollerTraffic count Honest Sunscreen among our personal favorites.
StrollerTraffic: To start, can you get us up to speed on the new requirements?
Christopher Gavigan: Starting last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring much more clarity and transparency on sunscreen labels. In a nutshell, any product in this category (everything from traditional sunscreens to lip balms and cosmetics with sunscreen) must now include the following information on the label:
Exactly what's inside. Labels must show the actual percentage of active ingredients.
Degree of protection. Old labels showed just an SPF number, which only reflects UVB protection—against the type of ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn. New labels can say “broad spectrum protection,” which means the sunscreen has been scientifically proven to protect against both UVB and UVA (the rays that penetrate deeper and cause cancer). Still, it’s important to note that UVA rays are further broken down into two types: UVA1 and UVA2. While the FDA has approved seventeen types of sunscreens, zinc oxide is the only one proven to protect against all three wavelengths: UVB, UVA1, and UVA2.
Warnings. All products must include a statement about the danger of sun exposure and offer protection tips. Additionally, any product with an SPF lower than 15 must have a warning that it doesn’t protect against skin cancer.
No more use of the terms “sunblock,” “sweat-proof,” or “water-proof.” Why? There’s no product that truly blocks the sun and all of them eventually wash off.
Water resistance time limits. Products labeled “water-resistant” must state how long the SPF protection lasts based on standardized testing (either up to 40 or 80 minutes).
ST: That's fantastic. But tell us, what types of dangers in skincare products can slip through unannounced, even with the new labeling requirements?
CG: The FDA still allows the sale of sunscreens that only offer UVB protection. Manufacturers can’t claim they’re “broad spectrum,” but they can still sell them. It doesn’t make sense and it isn’t allowed in places like Europe and Canada, where all sunscreens must be broad spectrum. Also, with regard to SPF, larger numbers mislead people into believing they’re more protected when in fact SPF 15 screens up to 95 percent of UVB rays and SPF 30 filters 97 percent. The FDA is considering putting a cap at 50 because anything over that isn’t proven to be significantly stronger.
ST: So basically you have to apply SPF 50 just as often as SPF 15. Got it. What about sprays?
CG: Sunscreen sprays are very popular because of their convenience, but they can be a questionable format for delivery for two reasons. First, we don’t know if enough sunscreen is actually adhering to skin to protect it adequately. Secondly we don’t know how chemical sunscreen ingredients in the sprays end up being inhaled and how this might impact a user's lungs—especially those of kids!*
ST: Ugh. Okay. Well, now that we understand labels, what should we look for, specifically? What should we avoid?
CG: There are two categories of active ingredients in sun protection: chemical absorbers and physical barriers. Chemical absorbers, such as benzophenone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate or octocrylene work by absorbing UV radiation before it affects or damages the skin. However, these ingredients are increasingly being linked to negative health impacts. The second category of active ingredients in sun protection is physical blockers (minerals), such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. When the sun hits these blockers it’s reflected and bounces away from the skin (versus getting absorbed). These ingredients are natural and far gentler on both you and the environment. But buyer beware, these sunscreens can sometimes use “nano-sized” ingredients (one-twentieth the thickness of a human hair), and there are mixed health concerns and data on whether they can penetrate the skin and directly interact with body at the cellular level.
ST: Eek! So we're avoiding chemical absorbers and possibly nano-sized ingredients. Anything else?
CG: Yes. PABA, parabens, phthalates, fragrances, and dyes.
ST: If we see an ingredient listed on a label that we don't recognize, where is the best place to find out exactly what it is and whether it's safe?
CG: The Environmental Working Group has a cosmetics database called Skin Deep, which is a nice starting point for understanding what’s inside your products at the ingredient level. I say “starting point” because they don’t actually test final formulas, so their rating system can sometimes be a bit misleading.
ST: What about the packaging itself? What are the important considerations here?
CG: As always, look for products packaged in safer plastics (like #1, 2, 4, 5 and some 7s)—especially those that are accepted by your local recycling facility and are “recyclable.”
ST: And shelf-life? How do we know how long a product lasts? What do we need to know about preservatives?
CG: The shelf-life of a sunscreen is variable depending on the preservative system used. Many conventional products use chemical preservatives that result in a product with a three year shelf-life, but they’re also typically toxic. For example, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, and imidazolidinyl urea all slowly release formaldehyde—a known carcinogen—to preserve the product. If there’s no expiration date on a product’s label, that means it has a three-year shelf life. If the shelf life is shorter, the FDA requires an expiration date on the label.
ST: And do we respect those expiration dates?
CG: You should absolutely toss sunscreen that’s past its expiration date, that’s been exposed to high heat, or has changed color or consistency.
ST: Good to know. Thank you, Christopher! (We feel smarter already.)
*Editor's note (6/5/14): Post-publication, it was brought to our attention that mineral-based sprays, which are non-chemical and appear white on the skin when applied, can be a reliable, safe, and effective way to apply sunscreen. Our expert, Christopher Gavigan, agrees.