Deciphering Sunscreen Labels

The aisles are long, the choices are vast – how do you choose a sunscreen for yourself and your family? With 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer in their lifetime, the information in this blog can be very helpful in determining the best choices for you and your family.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the sales and labeling of sunscreens under the sunscreen innovation act (SIA.) This means that by law, there are certain things that must be included on the label.

Types Of Sun Rays

There are two types of sun rays, UVA & UVB. UVB rays cause the skin to burn, while UVA rays are the primary cause for wrinkles.

An easy way to remember:

UVA = A for Aging

UVB = B for Burning

However, the most important takeaway is that both UVA & UVB rays can increase the risk of developing skin cancer.


Now, Let’s Look At A Few Common Terms On A Sunscreen Label And Breakdown What They Mean.

  1. SPF – Sun Protection Factor

SPF is a term directly related to the protection against UVB rays. The higher the number, the more protection offered from UVB rays. According to the FDA, wearing sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat and avoiding midday sun in addition to the use of a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or above, can help reduce the risk of developing skin cancer.

SPF is a scientific measure focused on the time it takes UVB rays to penetrate through sunscreen and cause the skin to redden. For example, an SPF of 15 will take you 15 minutes longer to burn than without the use of SPF.

No sunscreen blocks all UVB rays.

  • SPF 50 Blocks Approximately 98% Of All UVB Rays
  • SPF 30 Filters Approximately 97%
  • SPF 15 Blocks Around 93%
  1. Broad Spectrum

As we discussed earlier, both UVB & UVA rays can lead to an increased risk of developing skin cancer. This is why it is important to look for a product that not only contains the appropriate SPF, but also lists that it is a broad-spectrum or full-spectrum product. This means that it has been tested to block both types of sun rays.

  1. Water and Sweat Resistant

No sunscreen is completely waterproof or sweatproof and as such, the FDA prohibits the use of those terms. They can, however, be listed as “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant” along with a time period of 40-80 minutes. Sunscreen should always be reapplied immediately after swimming or sweating.

  1. Active Ingredients

This portion of the label is typically on the back of the bottle and will list the main ingredients in the sunscreen that help to protect your skin. There are two main categories of active ingredients in sunscreen: physical and chemical. Chemical protectants work by absorbing the sun’s rays while reducing the penetration into your skin. Common chemical protectants include avobenzone and benzophenone. On the other hand, physical sunscreens remain on the surface of the skin to deflect the sun’s rays. Common physical ingredients include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Often, you will find that many sunscreens will utilize both categories of sun protectants.

  1. The Skin Cancer Foundation Seal of Recommendation

This seal is given to sunscreens that have been reviewed and found to be safe and effective by a committee from the Skin Cancer Foundation.

There are two seals: Daily Use Seal & Active Seal.

The Daily Use Seal is given to sunscreens that are intended to protect against short-term sun exposure, such as walking to the car or mailbox. The Active Seal is given to sunscreens intended to block against longer-term exposure to the sun’s rays while being outdoors, such as the beach or playing in a park.


Clothing With Built-In Protection

Have you ever slipped on a t-shirt to help protect your skin from the sun at the pool or beach? Maybe even thinking you could forego sunscreen on your back and shoulders by wearing a t-shirt? Without a sun-blocking treatment, loose-weaved fabrics do little to protect you from the dangers of the sun’s rays. You may have noticed clothing with a UPF number on the tag. This stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor. This number indicates what fraction of the sun’s rays can penetrate through the clothing to reach your skin. For example, if a shirt has a UPF of 75, only 1/75th of all the sun’s UV radiation can reach the skin.

Now, Let’s Talk Application And Other Important Information.

It is recommended to apply sunscreen at a maximum of every two hours, regardless of the SPF. You should also reapply immediately after swimming or sweating.

Most people do not apply sunscreen thick enough. Experts say that most people apply only a quarter of the amount that they should. On average, 1 ounce for your body and 1 tablespoon for your face is recommended. No matter how much you are applying, more is better.

An 8-ounce bottle of sunscreen, used continuously as directed, should be enough for one person for 2-3 days at the beach.

Also, keep in mind that sunscreen has an expiration date! Sunscreen will begin to lose its effectiveness after this date, so make sure to be aware of the dates on your bottles and use it up!

Don’t forget commonly forgotten about areas: your scalp and hairline, ears, feet, lips, hands and eyelids! Protective clothing such as hats, UV blocking sunglasses, hand lotions with SPF, and lip balms with SPF are all helpful for these often-overlooked areas of our bodies.


Now that you are armed with more knowledge, think back through your lifetime. Just 5 sunburns in a lifetime increases your chance of developing melanoma by 80%! As the weather heats up and all year round, make sure to take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and loved ones from the sun’s rays.


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Written By: S. Campbell for Access Health Care Physicians, LLC. 

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