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Sunscreen products: What matters?

European Commission - MEMO/06/185   04/05/2006

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MEMO/06/185

Brussels, 4 May2006

Sunscreen products: What matters?

The European Commission has launched an initiative to improve the labelling system for sunscreen products (see IP/06/571) and to ensure coherent rules in the EU. Sunscreen products protect from UV radiation and can be effective in preventing sun-burn. Therefore, consumers should make use of these products. However, there are several reasons why sunscreen products should be only one out of a number of measures to protect from the UV radiation of the sun.

1. UVA radiation: How to read sunscreen labels?

Most importantly, consumers should choose sunscreen products offering protection against UVB and UVA radiation as both are harmful to human health: While “sun-burn” is mainly provoked by UVB radiation, UVA radiation is responsible for skin ageing, impacts on the human immune system and is an important contributor to the skin cancer risk. The problem is that the “sun protection factor” only indicates protection against UVB radiation. It is currently difficult for the consumer to know whether a sunscreen product also protects against UVA radiation: there are varying claims, such as "broad spectrum", "broad extra UVA, UVB", "100% anti UVA/UVB/IR", "keeps short UVA radiation away", " UVA of 30A", "strengthened protection UVA", "UVB absorption spectrum 30/UVA 30", "25B 7 A", "SPF 30, UVA protection index factor 10", "SPF 60-IPD 55-PPD12", "broad spectrum contain UVA filters", "with UVA filters", "protection according to the Australian standard", etc.

The Commission intends to issue a recommendation which shall ensure, as of 2007, a standardised labelling of UVA protection based on similar testing standards.

2. What sun protection factor the consumer should choose?

The sun protection factor (SPF) is a score used to describe the ‘strength’ of the product to protect against “sun–burn”, i.e. mainly UVB radiation. It is important to know that an SPF over 50 practically does not increase the protection against sun burn and UVB radiation. Rather, if a product is applied correctly (see below), an SPF of 15-25 suffices to protect a person with normal skin from sun burn.

3. There is no sun block or total protection

Sunscreen products cannot deliver total protection from UV radiation. Even the high SPFs do let some of the UV radiation through. This holds also true for products claiming to be a “sun block” or to offer “total protection”.

4. What consumers should know about sunscreens for this summer?

The Commission is intending to issue a recommendation in order to improve the efficacy of sunscreen products and the way this is being claimed. The “implementation” of this Commission recommendation will be “visible” on the market in summer 2007.

In any case, and already today, consumers are advised the following:

Use sunscreen products only as one out of many measures to protect against the sun.

Other measures include:

  • Avoid excessive sun exposure at peak hours, which is usually between 11am and 3pm;
  • When it is not possible to stay out of the sun, keep yourself well covered;
  • Hats and sun glasses can give you additional protection;
  • Avoid direct sun exposure of babies and young children;
  • Use sunscreens products protecting against both UVB and UVA radiation;
  • Apply sunscreen products regularly to maintain the protection claimed;
  • Apply sunscreen products in sufficient quantity.

Remember that:

  • 90% of solar UV radiation can penetrate light clouds so you can get sunburnt even on a cloudy summer day.
  • Water offers minimal protection from UV radiation and reflections from water can enhance your UV radiation exposure
  • Solar radiation exposure is cumulative during the day so taking regular breaks during sunbathing will not mean lower total exposure.

5. How should sunscreen products be used by consumers?

It is important to know that sunscreen products have their full effect only if used in sufficient quantities: To protect the whole body of an average-seized adult, a quantity of 35 grams of the sunscreen product needs to be applied. This is a quantity equal to approximately six filled tea spoons. Moreover, it is crucial to frequently re-apply these products to maintain protection – in particular after swimming, bathing or towelling.

Finally, you should not expose yourself overly long to the sun: While sunscreen products may prevent the “sun-burn”, there is nevertheless some UV radiation reaching the skin. Extending sun exposure while re-applying the sunscreen product leads to an accumulation of exposure to UV radiation without the “warning” of a “sun-burn”, i.e. a reddening of the skin.

6. Sun radiation in particular risky for children

Avoiding UV radiation is most essential for children. The risk of skin-cancer is higher if the baby or child has been over-exposed to UV radiation. Therefore, dermatologists advise that babies and children should not be exposed to direct sunlight at all, for example by wearing protective clothing.

7. Swimming and light clouds require sunscreen products, too

The UV radiation penetrates down into the water: At half a metre depth UV radiation is still 40% as intense as at the surface. So you are exposed to it even when you swim. On top the surface of the water reflects the UV radiation so that your face or parts of the body outside the water do get additional exposure to it.

You also need to apply sunscreen products on cloudy summer day. Light clouds do allow over 90% of the UV radiation to pass so you should use these products in summer days with light cloudiness.


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