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Broad Spectrum Sunscreen - What It Is and Why It's a Must

by Will / April, 30 2014 01:30

FDA graphic explaining broad spectrum sunscreen

In 2011 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) started a new sunscreen labeling process that went into full effect in 2013. One of the outcomes was allowing certain sunscreens to be labeled "Broad Spectrum."

Let's just get this out there, always and I mean always use a broad spectrum sunscreen. If you're not using a broad spectrum sunscreen, you're not getting full sun protection. Ok, with that out of the way let's look at what this means.

What Broad Spectrum Means

The suns rays come in three flavors: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC fortunately you don't have to worry about. If you want to know why, check out our article "UVA, UVB and UVC Rays: What They Are and How Sunscreen Protects You". As for UVA and UVB rays, you need protection from both and in the U.S. only sunscreens labeled broad spectrum give that.

You might think you just need a higher SPF, but that's not true. SPF on its own only measures protection from UVB rays, not UVA rays (for more, check out our article "What a Sunscreen's SPF Really Means"). Instead, you need to look for "Broad Spectrum" on a sunblock's label to make sure you are getting UVA protection and consider the SPF rating from there.

How SPF Relates to Broad Spectrum

The FDA says:

"For 'Broad Spectrum' sunscreens, the SPF also generally serves as a relative measure of the magnitude of Broad Spectrum protection."

Relative to what? Relative to the UVB protection. So while not being an exact measure of UVA protection, a higher SPF should give you better UVA protection than the same sunscreen formula at a lower SPF. In fact, to be labeled broad spectrum the FDA mandates at least an SPF 15 rating.

Why Broad Spectrum is Important

So why is both UVA and UVB protection important? Glad you asked...UVB rays give you sunburn. So protection from them keeps sunburns and the pain associated with them away. UVB rays also play a role in skin aging and skin cancer. One thing to know about UVB rays is they are less prevalent during the winter, mornings and evenings. But as anyone who's gotten a late day or winter sunburn (I certainly have skiing) knows, you still need protection.

Unlike UVB, UVA rays are equally prevalent throughout the year and at all times of day. They actually account for 95% of the UV radiation that reaches the earth. On top of that, while they don't cause sunburn they are a leading cause of skin cancer and skin aging. Something we can all certainly use protection from.

Where to Get a Broad Spectrum Sunscreen

Fortunately, finding a broad spectrum sunscreen is not difficult. All Block Island Organics sunscreens for example are broad spectrum. Our mineral sunblock formulations use zinc as the UV filter and this gives the products protection from both UVA and UVB. But heck, if you don't have a bottle of our stuff, just check for "broad spectrum" on the label and you'll know you're getting protection from both.

Final Thoughts

It's all a bit confusing but if you can remember two things you should be ok:

  1. Only sunscreens labeled "Broad Spectrum" give UVB and UVA protection
  2. Use a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher

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