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What you need to know about sunscreen labels

Sunscreen plays an essential role in preventing skin cancer. But many consumers find the labels confusing and may need more guidance when navigating the sunscreen aisle, new research suggests.

The study, published in JAMA Dermatology, found that although 80 percent of people surveyed had recently purchased sunscreen, only 43 percent understood how sun factor protection (SPF) works.

"We need to do a better job of educating people about sun protection and make it easier for them to understand labels," Dr. Roopal Kundu, associate professor in dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

Researchers surveyed 114 people who visited the Northwestern Medicine dermatology clinic during the summer of 2014. Only 38 percent of them correctly identified terminology about sun protection and 23 percent could tell how well the sunscreen protected against sunburn. Just seven percent knew what to look for in a sunscreen to protect against early skin aging.

"The most important thing to look for are the words 'broad spectrum.' That means the sunscreen protects against UVA rays, which cause skin aging and wrinkles, and UVB rays, which cause sunburns," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Holly Phillips told "CBS This Morning." Both of those types of rays, she pointed out, are linked with skin cancer.

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration announced new regulations for sunscreen labels in order to help consumers better understand them, but the study suggests these changes may not be working well enough.

The study found that almost half of the participants surveyed bought sunscreen with the highest SPF value available, but over-reliance on this measure is problematic, experts say.

"Higher isn't necessarily better," Phillips said. "SPF is a measure or multiple of how much longer you can stay out in the sun without getting a sun burn if you're wearing the sunscreen versus if you're not."

For example, if you ordinarily would get a sunburn in 10 minutes, she explained, wearing a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 would allow you to stay out in the sun 30 times longer, or 300 minutes, without getting burned.

However, sunscreen only works if you apply it regularly and correctly. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying one ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass, to cover every exposed area of the body. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating. "There's no such thing as waterproof, no matter what the bottle says," Phillips said.

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