Sunscreen Use Confusion Sparks Call For Better Labelling

The majority of people don’t know how to use sunscreen right nor what protection level ratings mean, according to results of a survey from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Of particular concern is that many are not aware that the SPF rating alone shown on sunscreen labels is not a guarantee of sufficient all round protection from potential sun damage.

The Society surveyed 2,057 Great Britain adults.

Only 8% of people surveyed knew that the SPF rating on the product label refers to protection from UVB rays only. It does not include also protection from harmful UVA rays, which is usually shown by a separate ‘star’ rating.

Over 80% stated they thought SPF indicated protection levels for both UVB and UVA (56%) or that they did not even know what the rating stood for (25%).

Professor Jayne Lawrence, Chief Scientist for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said:

“This survey indicates that there is a huge amount of confusion around sunscreen labelling that is a barrier to effective sun protection. Clearly many consumers do not realise the SPF rating applies only to the amount of protection offered against UVB rays, not UVA rays – both of which can damage the skin and cause skin cancer.”

The study also found that among those surveyed:

  • 44% always or often used sunscreen when out in the sun
  • 31% either did not know how much lotion to apply or thought they should apply less than needed to ensure protection
  • 13% said they reapplied sunscreen every two hours when out in sunny weather in the UK, which is the advised amount.
  • 25% said they always used sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher when sunbathing in the UK
  • 30% said they try to stay in the shade between the hours of 11am-3pm
  • Less than a third of those surveyed said they always checked the UVA star rating when buying sunscreen (31%).
  • 20% of students and 15% of adults with children said that they never checked it at all

Lawrence added:

“People should not have to pick their way through complicated dual ratings information to understand how sunscreen works and the amount of protection it potentially provides. We think it’s time for sunscreen manufacturers to provide one easy to understand rating, based on a simple description of the total amount of sun protection offered: low, medium, high and very high protection.

People now have largely got the message that they must protect their skin from the sun using sunscreen, along with other precautions such as covering up and keeping out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. What the RPS is calling for now is one uniform measure for all sun protection products, so pharmacists can provide easy to understand advice on the effectiveness of products and how they should be used.”

Malignant skin cancer rates have seen an overall increase in Great Britain since the mid-1970s.

Some of the increase may be from more awareness, early detection, or changes in diagnostic criteria, but the bulk of it is considered real and linked to changes in sun-related behaviour such as an increase in frequency of holidays abroad over time.

A study published in December 2011 estimated that around 86% of malignant melanoma skin cancers in the UK in 2010 were linked to exposure to UV rays from the sun and sunbeds.