Sunscreen warnings must be clearer to be effective, M.D. says

August 1, 2005

Vienna, Austria — Dermatologists have cautioned people for decades to use sunscreen to reduce sun exposure, yet some researchers continue to debate whether these products can really protect against melanoma.

Vienna, Austria - Dermatologists have cautioned people for decades to use sunscreen to reduce sun exposure, yet some researchers continue to debate whether these products can really protect against melanoma.

Regardless, sunscreens won't have even a chance of working unless people use them correctly, dermatologists say. And the much-touted sun protection factor (SPF) valuation may not be enough to make that happen.

Jean-Jacques Grob, M.D., of Marseille, France, told members of the 10th World Congress on Cancers of the Skin that people do not understand exactly what the SPF actually means, and this misunderstanding contributes to incorrect application of the creams and lotions.

"Indeed, the poor protection by sunscreens is no longer due to the poor protection properties of the sunscreens, but to poor use - especially a too-thin and uneven layer of sunscreen applied," Dr. Grob tells Dermatology Times.

Education a must

A professor and head of the department of dermatology at the University of Marseille, Dr. Grob says people on vacation were divided into three groups. The first group was a control group using the sunscreens they had bought, if any. The second group had at their free disposal sunscreens with the traditional SPF markings of 60, 20, 12 and 6. The third group had at their free disposal sunscreens that had more complete explanations of the sunscreen's efficacy.

For example, Dr. Grob says, the SPF 60 sunscreen might say: "If applied properly (1/4th of a bottle a day) you will not tan, you will be protected from sunburn and will probably have the best protection for a cream against long-term effects such as photo-aging and skin cancer."

While the weakest sunscreen might read: "If applied properly, you will be able to tan easily, you will not be protected from sunburn and will probably not be protected from long-term effects of sun exposure such as skin cancer and wrinkles."

Devoted to tanning

Dr. Grob reports that in the group with access to clearly labeled sunscreen, the amount applied was much higher than in the group using products with the usual SPF label, and the skin was better protected with less sunburn, especially in sun-sensitive individuals.

"This was true except in those individuals whose first objective during the week holiday was tanning," Dr. Grob says. "What we found was that if people are devoted to tanning, then clear labeling does not prompt them to apply more sunscreen. If they don't want to be protected, you can write anything on the bottle, and they will not change their behavior."

According to Dr. Grob, the main message is that a simple change in the label - listing clear information instead of technical characteristics (SPF) - can improve the use of sunscreens in those who really are serious about protection.

"The exact wording of the bottle label isn't as important as the concept that if we provide people with clear information - at least among those people who are not completely devoted to sun tanning - it will affect how they use the sunscreen," he says.

For most people, Dr. Grob says, the SPF is just a technical number, and they have no concept of what it actually means.

Primary problems

The are two primary problems, according to Dr. Grob.

People who are not tan-seekers often use insufficient amounts of sunscreen because the SPF label does not help them to understand how to protect their skin correctly.

Those who are tan-seekers think they can tan safely - that they can get a tan while protecting themselves from sunburn and long-term effects.

Explaining clearly what sunscreens will and won't do enables people to make a choice, he says.