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Sunscreen Labels: What You Should Know

July 24, 2019

Choosing a sunscreen can be confusing. What does SPF mean? What are the active ingredients in sunscreen? How long can you stay in the sun or the water before you need to apply more? Get answers to these questions and more right here — and by reading sunscreen labels.

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Are you confused by sunscreen labels?

Most of us shop for sunscreen every year, sometimes more often. But do you know what to look for? Check the labels to make an informed choice.

What You Need to Protect Yourself

While the best sunscreen for you is whichever one you’ll always use when you’re outside, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends you choose sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection, SPF 30 or higher, and water resistance.

Broad-Spectrum Protection

A broad-spectrum sunscreen is designed to help you combat skin cancer, sunburn and early skin aging. Look for sunscreen that protects you against both of these:

Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

SPF measures how long a typical person can stay in the sun before UVB rays start to burn the skin. No sunscreen can block 100% of the sun's UVB rays, although lab tests suggest how much UVB light different SPFs can filter out:

  • SPF 15 — 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 — 97% of UVB rays

The AAD advises always using an SPF 30 or higher. Keep in mind, above SPF 50 the amount of additional protection is marginal. And sunscreens lose effectiveness over time — you should reapply every two hours.

Water Resistance

You’ll need to reapply sunscreen more frequently when you’ve been in the water or sweating. No sunscreen is fully “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” so, look for these terms:

  • Water resistant — Effective for 40 minutes in the water
  • Very water resistant — Effective for 80 minutes in the water

That means after 40 or 80 minutes, you'll need to reapply. And even if your skin stays dry, reapply it every two hours anyway.

Other Important Label Information

Sunscreen products are considered over-the-counter drugs by the FDA, which regulates what their labels can say. In addition to whether the sunscreen is broad spectrum or water resistant, and what its SPF is, look for this other valuable information:

The Skin Cancer Foundation Seal of Recommendation

A non-profit organization, the Skin Cancer Foundation conducts two non-FDA tests for allergic reactions and rashes through contact irritancy, and phototoxicity, which shows up after UV exposure. Check sunscreen labels for one of these:

  • Daily Use Seal — for short sun exposure, like walking to your car, going to work or running errands
  • Active Seal — for longer periods of time outside, like exercising in the sun or hanging out at the beach
Active Ingredients

There are two main types of sunscreen ingredients that actively protect your skin:

  • Chemical — such as avobenzone and benzophenone, which absorb UV rays to reduce how much penetrates the skin
  • Physical — such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which deflect and scatter UV rays

Many sunscreens combine both types to give you the greatest protection. Some people prefer sunscreens with physical ingredients, which can be less irritating to sensitive skin.

Finally, whether you choose a product that’s a lotion, cream, gel, ointment, stick or spray, be sure to completely and evenly cover all exposed skin — and reapply regularly. Then enjoy your time in the sun!