Buyer's Guide to Summer Sun: Finding the Right Sunscreen

Sun protection

The Food and Drug Administration passed new standards for sunscreens for the first time in Junejust in time to catch some summer sun. Although the updated guidelines wont officially take effect until 2012, consumers can expect to see changes on their favorite brands labels almost immediately.

The new regulations require brands to detail how well they protect and make a distinction between protection from ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which cause premature aging and skin cancer, and ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) rays, which cause sunburn. Per the new law, sunscreens can only be labeled as broad spectrum if they provide protection against both types of rays.

Dr. Joel Schlessinger, a cosmetic surgeon and dermatologist in Omaha, Neb., and founder of skincare Web site, says that just as the suns rays arent created equal, neither are sunscreens.

The problem is that to make a sunscreen with UVA protection costs a lot more, says Schlessinger. UVA protectants and UVB  protectants are challenging to work with because you are putting two finicky ingredients together and trying to create something with a nice end result.

Moving forward, products that do not provide UVA protection will be required to carry a warning that they dont prevent early aging or skin cancer, only sunburn. The Sun Protection Factor, or SPF seen on all sunscreens, only protects from UVB rays.

Developing a sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protectants can cost anywhere between $100,000 and $200,000, according to Schlessinger.  This is why cheaper sunscreens are just that: If a manufacturer chooses an off-the-shelf formula with UVB protection only, there are no development costs.

The main expense in any topical product is the formulation of it, says Schlessinger. The stability testing is huge, because one ingredient could turn another blue, or make another smell bad.

Dr. Neal Schultz, owner of Park Avenue Skincare in New York and founder of skincare line BeautyRx, says that sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays must also pass a longer stability test for expiration. Sunscreens that expire two years from when it was manufactured must go through three months of testing, and sunscreens that expire three years from creation must go through a six month testing process. The products must also go through microbiology testing to make sure there are no germs growing in it.

You cant just make claims about your product, says Schultz. You have to do testing, and then have them on file and ready for the FDA when they decide to check.

Although Schultz says that the lengthy development process for a good product will make a product cost more, if you spend $40 on sunscreen vs. $5 on sunscreen, it doesnt mean you get eight times the protection.

If you buy a premium sunscreen, its going to give you more protection, its going to have better spreadability, and you may get more applications out of the same tube, but its not going to be exponentially better than what you can get at a much cheaper price point, says Schultz.  But premium protection in a nice package that includes anti-aging and anti-oxidant ingredients will always come at a premium price.

Schlessinger calls sunscreens a buyer beware phenomenon, and says consumers need to shift their focus to a brands ingredients when looking at label.

SPF means a great deal to consumers but it doesnt mean a lot in terms of sun protection, he says.

Steve Peck, president of HydroPeptide skincare company, says consumers shouldnt worry paying for an SPF higher than 50. As part of the new FDA guidelines, no sunscreen product will be allowed to claim an SPF value higher than 50 because the benefit it offers consumers is negligible.

As you go higher, youre really not getting any more protection, says Peck. Its not necessary to spend more for SPF 70 or 80 because once you hit SPF 30, youre getting 97% coverage of UVB rays. SPF 40 gives you 97.2% coverage, and SPF 50 gives you 97.3% coverage. If you wanted 100% coverage, youd basically be rubbing chalk on your face.

Peck, whose company often goes through 50 or 60 different variations of a sunscreen before bringing it to market, says that all of the suns rays are considered equal, so the 3% of rays that get through even with sunscreen arent any stronger or more harmful to the skin.

That 3% that you will get when wearing sunscreen is good for you, says Peck. Everyone needs a little vitamin D.