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A sunny lament: Why you’ll get burned reading the label

July 3, 2012 - Ilsa Matthes
For those of you who don’t know, I am a pale, freckled, mostly Norwegian American. I often wonder why my Nordic ancestors decided to leave the Land of the Midnight Sun to come to the United States.

I blame their decision on the need for land on which to grow potatoes. Lefse is a powerful force.

The sun has long been my nemesis, and after spending my weekend at a flea market and an outdoor music festival it is clear that the sun has won this battle.

You see, I know better than to be outside without sunscreen. I’ve had sunpoisoning and third degree burns. Unfortunately, the festival I went to attracted thousands of people, and I managed to get a parking spot within one city block. By the time I realized I didn’t have sunscreen it came down to an issue of parking.

One of the major issues with sunscreen — besides not being sold at booths during music festivals — is that people rarely use it properly. Part of the problem is that we are reading the labels.

At the end of this year, the new FDA rules for sunscreen labels will take effect. No longer will bottles claim to be “waterproof,” “sweatproof,” or use the word “sunblock.” If a sunscreen claims to be “water-resistant” it must specify whether it protects for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating based on standardized testing. No sunscreen can be marketed as protecting for more than two hours without submitting test results that prove it to the FDA.

There is also a proposed regulation that would make all sunscreens to be labeled as “SPF 50+” if the SPF is over 50. The reasoning behind this is that there is not enough evidence that a higher SPF provides any additional benefits.

That, and we feel too safe. The problem comes when someone puts on “SPF 70 waterproof sunblock” they are less likely to reapply. After all, with a label like that they could be applying house paint.

I’ve been badly burned while wearing sunscreen. Depending on the incident, I was either burned because I didn’t reapply, or because my sunscreen had expired.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the shelf life for a bottle of sunscreen is three years. In the past I would buy the family sized bottle of SPF 70. No matter how many sun-filled days I had it never seemed to run dry. It would, however, stop working.

Whether I got a burn wearing sunscreen or not wearing sunscreen, I always had a product for the burn. I’ve tried every after burn product under the sun invented. Unfortunately, many of those products degrade overtime as well.

If you burn badly or have a low pain threshold, there is nothing better to take the edge off than lidocaine. Novocaine’s more potent cousin, this product can be found in aloe gels, sprays, and creams. It is also found in your dentist’s office.

Lidocaine is the active ingredient in many “burn relief” products, but it will lose it’s potency overtime. If you’re using your sunscreen properly you won’t need very much, so try buying smaller quantities of products that include it.

Aloe is the standby to treat a burn, but, unless you’re squeezing it right from a houseplant, it too will expire. There should be an expiration date on the bottle. Again, smaller quantities are best unless you are using aloe for other remedies as well.

Sometimes burns are too bad to self-treat and require medical attention. Call a doctor if you get a burn that bleeds, oozes, has large blisters, blisters that cover large portions of your body, there are red streaks from blisters, or the skin has white patches. Also contact a doctor when a sunburn causes nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or high fever. If a sunburn causes unconsciousness call 911 immediately.

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None of this constitutes medical advice. I’m a writer, not a doctor. When in doubt, contact a professional.

For more information about the new sunscreen labels read the FDA's sunscreen consumer update.


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