Thursday, May 14, 2009

Confused by SPF? Take a Number

NY Times: "LAST year, Coppertone rolled out two easy-to-use sprays with its highest-ever sun protection factor: SPF 70+. Not to be outdone, Neutrogena offered its Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch lotion in SPF 85 strength, that year’s big gun.
This sun season, Banana Boat is retaliating with a pair of SPF 85 sprays, which it trumpets on its Web site as “our highest SPF level in a continuous spray formula.”
But now, SPF creep has hit the triple digits with Neutrogena’s SPF 100+ sunblock, leading some dermatologists to complain that this is merely a numbers game that confuses consumers.
The parade of stratospheric SPFs is “crazy,” said Dr. Barbara A. Gilchrest, a dermatology professor at Boston University School of Medicine. “For a normal person who is fair-skinned and concerned about skin damage and photoaging,” Dr. Gilchrest said, “it’s really in my opinion tremendous overkill.”
A sunscreen’s SPF, or sun protection factor, measures how much the product shields the sun’s shorter-wave ultraviolet B rays, known as UVB radiation, which can cause sunburn. It used to be that SPF topped out at 30. No more. These days, a race is on among sunscreen makers to create the highest SPF that R&D can buy.
If adequately applied, sunscreens with sky-high SPFs offer slightly better protection against lobster-red burns than an SPF 30. But they don’t necessarily offer stellar protection against the more deeply penetrating ultraviolet A radiation, or so-called aging rays.
In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration proposed capping SPF at 50+, but it still isn’t set in stone. So in the cap’s absence, a marketing battle is raging, fought on the turf best understood by beachgoers.
“It captures the consumers’ attention, the high SPF,” said Dr. Elma D. Baron, an assistant professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University who sees patients at hospitals in Cleveland. “Just walking down the drugstore aisle and seeing a SPF 90 or 95, they assume, ‘This is what I need.’ ”"

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