Sunscreen ratings above 50 questioned

Experts caution against using sunscreen alone; hats and shade help a lot.
Corpus Christi Caller-Times/AP
Experts caution against using sunscreen alone; hats and shade help a lot.

WASHINGTON — Sunbathers this summer will find new sunscreen labels that are designed to make the products more effective and easier to use. But despite the long-awaited changes, many sunscreens continue to carry SPF ratings that some experts consider misleading and potentially dangerous.

A survey of 1,400 products by the Environmental Working Group found that most meet federal rules put in place in December. The Food and Drug Administration banned terms like ‘‘waterproof,’’ which regulators consider misleading, and requires that sunscreens filter out both ultraviolet A and B rays. Previously, some products blocked only UVB rays, which cause most sunburn, while providing little protection against UVA rays, which pose the greatest risk of skin cancer and wrinkles.

Yet one in seven products reviewed by the watchdog group boasted sun protection factor, or SPF, ratings above 50, which have long been viewed with skepticism by experts. In part, that’s because SPF numbers like 100 or 150 can give users a false sense of security, leading them to stay in the sun long after the lotion stops protecting their skin.


Many consumers assume SPF 100 is twice as effective as SPF 50, but dermatologists say the difference is negligible.

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‘‘The high SPF numbers are just a gimmick,’’ says Marianne Berwick, professor of epidemiology at the University of New Mexico. ‘‘Most people really don’t need more than an SPF 30 and they should reapply it every couple of hours.’’

The FDA said in 2011 that ‘‘a specific SPF value higher than 50 would be misleading” and proposed capping all SPF values at 50.

Manufacturers argue that higher SPF products do provide measurable benefits. The FDA is still reviewing studies and comments.

The FDA is also reviewing the safety and effectiveness of spray-on products.