How to Decode Your Sunscreen Label

With so many sunscreens available, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out which sunscreen offers the best protection for you because those labels can be tricky.  Some of the terms you see quite frequently, such as “broad spectrum” and “SPF,” have very specific FDA-tested meanings, but others lack official backing and are misleading when still placed on the sun screen bottle. To help, here are some tips:



The sunscreen can protect you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which helps prevent:

  • Skin cancer
  • Early skin aging (premature age spots, wrinkles, and sagging skin)
  • Sunburn



How well a sunscreen protects you from sunburn.  Think of the it as the "sunburn protection factor."


“SPF #”

This number tells you how much UVB light (the burning rays) a sunscreen can filter out.  *Note:  NO sunscreen can filter out 100% of the sun’s UVB rays, so it’s very important you also wear protective clothing and seek shade.  The AAD recommends using an SPF higher than 30 and the science behind it shows why:

  • SPF 15: 93% of the sun's UVB rays are filtered out
  • SPF 30: 97% of the sun's UVB raysare filtered out



THIS DOES NOT EXIST. There's no such thing as waterproof sunscreen because perspiration and water wash it from our skin, so the FDA no longer allows manufacturers to claim that.



How long the sunscreen will stay on wet skin.  Only after undergoing testing can a sunscreen earn this label.  Water resistant sunscreens remain effective for 40 minutes in the water.  After that you need to reapply.  Very water resistant sunscreens remain effective for 80 minutes after which you’ll need to reapply. *Note:  Even if your skin remains dry while using a water resistant sunscreen, you'll need to reapply the sunscreen every 2 hours.

Reapplication is necessary because the sunscreen only lasts so long on our skin after the sun’s rays break it down or clump which makes it lose its effectiveness. To continue sun protection while outdoors, reapply every 2 hours, after toweling off, especially when sweating or after being in the water.  Even if using “water resistant” sunscreens, be sure to reapply every 40 to 80 minutes depending on strength.

Bottom line, if the sunscreen offers SPF 30 or greater, Broad-spectrum protection, and water resistance, it can effectively protect you from the sun.



*Note:  The FDA has NOT defined this term for sunscreen.  It’s best to think of this term as “water resistant” because it usually means that the sunscreen will stay on wet skin for either 40 or 80 minutes as previously discussed.  Just check the label for the words “water resistant” or “very water resistant” to be sure.  The same reapplication rules apply as well.



*Note:  The FDA has NOT defined this term for sunscreen either.  In general, it means the sunscreen contains only these active ingredients which are less likely to irritate a baby’s sensitive skin:

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide



*Note:  Again, the FDA does NOT define this term for sunscreen.  If a sunscreen label says "sensitive skin," it often means that the sunscreen:

  • Contains one or both active ingredients — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide
  • Does NOT contain fragrance, oils, PABA, or active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, which can irritate sensitive skin
  • Is hypoallergenic



If a sunscreen label says it contains insect repellent, it’s best to just get a different one.  Though both products provide important protection, the AAD recommends buying them separately because sunscreen should be applied liberally and often, while insect repellent should be applied sparingly and less often than sunscreen.



American Academy of Dermatology. “Sunscreen FAQs.

Blog Home

Recent Posts From The Blog