Proper Education Necessary Before Fun in the Sun

Sunscreen jargon may be proving to be too difficult to comprehend for many consumers.

Sunscreen jargon may be proving to be too difficult to comprehend for many consumers.

According to a new Northwestern Medicine study, published in JAMA Dermatology, only 43% of people surveyed understood the meaning of sun factor protection (SPF) and only 7% knew what to look for on a label if they wanted a sunscreen that offers protection against early skin aging.

Roopal Kundu, the study’s lead author, commented, “We recommend you buy a sunscreen lotion labeled 'broad spectrum protection'—which helps to protect against both types of UV rays — with an SPF of 30 or higher that is also water resistant. SPF 30 blocks 97% of the UVB radiation. But, you need to reapply it every two hours, using about a shot glass full of lotion over your exposed skin, for the best results."

Despite the FDA’s 2011 announcement of enacting new regulations for sunscreen labels to emphasize the importance of ‘broad spectrum protection,’ Kundu remarked, "We need to do a better job of educating people about sun protection and make it easier for them to understand labels.”

So, to assess what the consumers already understood about sunscreen labels and the like, Kundu and her colleagues surveyed a total of 114 individuals from the Northwestern Medicine dermatology clinic.

Nearly 80% of survey participants purchased sunscreen in 2013, and 75% said the primary reason they even applied sunscreen was to prevent sunburn, while roughly 66% said they wore sunscreen to prevent skin cancer.

When deciding on which sunscreen brand to purchase, the survey participants were most influenced by the highest SPF value, sensitive skin formulation, and water and sweat resistance, respectively.

As nearly half of the participants reported buying sunscreen with the highest SPF value available, Kundu and her colleagues were concerned with this overreliance on high SPF values.

For the final leg of the study, the team showed the participants an image of the front and back of a common sunscreen with a SPF of 30. The team noted several participants had difficulty identifying sunscreen terminology on the label.

  • Only 38% correctly identified terminology associated with skin cancer protection.
  • Approximately 23% correctly identified exactly how well the sunscreen protected against sunburn.
  • Just 7% correctly identified how the sunscreen protected against early skin aging.

However, the study participants were shown another sunscreen label on which UV-A protection was designated as a star rating and UV-B protection as an SPF value. The team was pleased to note 80% correctly determined the level of UV-A protection and nearly 90% could determine UV-B protection.