IT used to be so simple. When we needed a sunscreen, we picked either the brown bottle, or the other brown bottle. As long as it said SPF 15 or more, we knew we'd be safe.
Or so we thought.
As we learn more about how the sun affects the skin, sun care experts are hoping to teach us that not all rays are alike and neither are sunscreens. Some ultraviolet rays (UVBs) coming from the sun cause burning.
Others, UVAs, are known as "aging rays" because they penetrate deeply to cause wrinkles, age spots, skin cancer and other kinds of damage that can show up years later. UVAs also can pass through glass, plastic, clouds and some clothing.
This summer, a handful of companies have released new formulas that block UVA rays longer and more completely.
"Sunscreens today are giving better protection than the previous products," said Dr. Leslie Baumann, a professor of dermatology at the University of Miami. "And UVA protection is better than ever, but you have to know what brands to buy."
Which, Baumann will admit, sounds easier than it is. If you read the labels and know the ingredients, you still may not know what you're getting. Though the Food and Drug Administration classifies sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs and requires lengthy and expensive tests on their efficacy, the agency hasn't settled on a standard for testing, making claims or labeling UVA protection. The terms "broad spectrum" and "waterproof" and even SPF ratings don't always mean the same thing for different products.
Now that UVA protection has emerged as the new battleground, consumers will most likely find themselves caught in skirmishes between different companies, each touting the best UVA sunscreens.
"Every company has their own way that they test UVA, so every company is lobbying to have their testing method accepted so that they don't have to repeat their trials," Baumann said.
However, experts generally agree that one UVA-absorbing ingredient called avobenzone has been dramatically improved. Secondly, a version of an ingredient long used in Europe, ecamsule (known under the trade name Mexoryl SX for the water-soluble formula and patented by L'Oreal) recently won FDA approval as another effective option to help block more UVAs.
Avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789, was one of the first UVA-blocking chemicals allowed in the United States. However, it loses effectiveness as it absorbs sunlight, sometimes vanishing in 30 to 60 minutes, Baumann said.
Now a handful of companies have stabilized avobenzone with patented or closely guarded formulas. Neutrogena calls its formula Helioplex, whereas Johnson & Johnson's Aveeno products contain the Active Photobarrier Complex formula. Skin Effects by Dr. Jeffrey Dover calls its formula Dermaplex Technology, and a new product called Luca also contains the stabilized ingredient and aims to give consumers a standard of UVA comparison by listing on the label the critical wavelength of radiation that it blocks: 383 nanometers.
Having emerged last summer from the FDA's lengthy review process, L'Oreal is busy promoting its UVA-absorbing formulas that contain Mexoryl SX. (The FDA hasn't approved a new sunscreen filter like this since 1988.) Two L'Oreal products for sale in the U.S. contain Mexoryl SX: Lancome's UV Expert 20 Sunscreen (SPF 20), and La Roche-Posay's Anthelios SX (SPF 15).
Mexoryl SX filters out a specific portion of UVA light that other sunscreens reportedly don't handle as well. Heeding the mantra of the medical community, L'Oreal is offering Mexoryl SX in products designed to be worn every day, not just in strong sun. That's appropriate, Baumann said, because the products' low SPF ratings make them inadequate for intense beach sun.
Doctors warn that a lifetime of incidental exposure can be as damaging as several bad teenage sunburns, which makes sunscreen important beyond summertime. However, to know exactly how much sunscreen and what type of sunscreen you should apply on your skin and when, requires knowing something about the difference between physical and chemical blockers, as well as understanding the wavelengths of radiation that cause burning and the speed at which your skin will burn given a day's atmospheric conditions and even the altitude.
Or you could just get serious about finding a sunscreen that you'll actually wear -- and wear correctly -- every day. Some pointers:
* Use at least an SPF of 15 to shield from incidental daily sun exposure. The Skin Cancer Foundation warns that no sunscreen keeps out 100% of UVBs (SPF 30 filters out 97%, and SPF 50 just 1% more).
* For UVA protection, look for the words "broad-spectrum protection," "multispectrum protection" or "UVA/UVB protection." Chemical ingredients that block UVA are: avobenzone, oxybenzone and Mexoryl. Physical barriers (which may be less irritating to children and those with sensitive skin) are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
* Apply at least one ounce -- about a shot glass full -- of sunscreen on the exposed skin of an entire adult body.