We all know sunscreen is a vital part of a healthy skin protection regimen, but how do you know which one is right for you? Sunscreen labels are packed with information, but not all of it is crystal clear to the average consumer. What does SPF stand for? What’s the difference between “active ingredients”? What are UVA and UVB rays? Today, we’re demystifying this dermatological necessity to help you understand how to read a sunscreen label.
Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreens as “over the counter” (OTC) drugs, it means any product in this category (everything from traditional sunscreens to lip balms and cosmetics with sunscreen) must include the following information on the label:
FDA DRUG FACTS PANEL
The active ingredients are the ones that are protecting your skin from UV rays and there are two categories: chemical absorbers and physical barriers.
- Chemical absorbers, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, work by absorbing the energy of UV rays and converting it to heat that is then dispersed in the skin (1). These types of sunscreens are also known as “organic” sunscreens – not because they were raised without pesticides – in chemistry, that means the chemical is built from carbon molecules.
- Physical barriers (mineral sunscreens) reflect the UV rays, bouncing them away from the skin (1). They are also known as “inorganic” sunscreens because they do not contain carbon molecules.
The “uses” section will contain either 1 or 2 statements.
- helps prevent sunburn
- if used as directed with other sun protection measures (see Directions), decreases the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun
Only products that are labeled as both "Broad Spectrum" and SPF 15 or higher are allowed to use the second statement because they are the only ones that have been shown to provide all of those benefits (2).
General warning statements required by the FDA include:
- For external use only
- Do not use on damaged or broken skin
- When using this product keep out of eyes. Rinse with water to remove.
- Stop use and ask a doctor if rash occurs
- Keep out of reach of children.
- If product is swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away
Sunscreen products that are not “Broad Spectrum” or that are broad spectrum with SPF lower than 15 must also be labeled with a warning that reads: “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging (2).”
General directions for use are included on all sunscreen labels:
- apply liberally 15 minutes before sun exposure
- after 40 (or 80) minutes of swimming or sweating (if it’s a non-water resistant formula it should state “use a water-resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating”)
- immediately after towel drying
- at least every 2 hours
- children under 6 months: Ask a doctor
The label should also include a statement about the danger of sun exposure and offer skin protection tips. Here’s the FDA’s recommended language:
Sun Protection Measures. Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. To decrease this risk, regularly use a sunscreen with a broad spectrum SPF of 15 or higher and other sun protection measures including:
- limit time in the sun, especially from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
- wear long-sleeve shirts, pants, hats, and sunglasses
The standard language for this section is “protect this product from excessive heat and direct sun” to maintain the integrity of the product. Manufacturers might also include statements like “may stain some fabrics” or other details to help inform consumers.
These are all of the other non-sunscreen ingredients (listed in order of decreasing concentration) that make up the formula – things like:
- Emulsifiers that help keep the individual ingredients from separating
- Ingredients that help with the texture and “slip” for ease of application
- Preservatives that help maintain the efficacy of the formula and prevent the growth of risky pathogens
- Botanicals that may help with soothing and protecting skin in general, moisturizing and conditioning skin, etc.
SUN PROTECTION FACTOR (SPF)
The SPF denotes the degree of protection a product offers against UVB rays.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a minimum of SPF 30, but your protection level has far more to do with how generously you apply the sunscreen than the SPF number (3,4). Studies show most people don’t apply enough sunscreen resulting in an SPF value that’s only about half of what’s on the label (4).
SPF levels are also unique to your skin and how prone it is to reddening and sunburn. For example, SPF 15 means it would take your skin 15 times longer to get red than if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen at all. So, if your unprotected skin begins to redden after 20 minutes in the sun, then with an ample coat of SPF 15, it would take 300 minutes for your skin to begin to turn red. Still, since SPF is only applicable to UVB rays, to better protect your skin from UVA rays, reapplying sunscreen at least every 2 hours is recommended.
BROAD SPECTRUM PROTECTION
Previously, labels showed just an SPF number, which only reflects UVB protection against the type of ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn. New labels can say “broad spectrum protection,” which means the sunscreen has been scientifically proven to protect against both UVB and UVA.
What’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays?
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is part of the electromagnetic (light) spectrum from the sun that hits the earth.
- UVA is known as the aging rays. It has a longer wavelength at 320-400 nanometers (nm, or billionths of a meter) and are divided into two wave ranges:
- UVA I, which are 340-400 nanometers and
- UVA II which are 320-340 nanometers.
UVA rays compose about 95 percent of the UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface and are the prime cause of photo-aging. (They can also lead to cancer.) Plus, they have relatively equal intensity during the whole day any time of the year, and can even penetrate clouds and glass.
- UVB wavelengths range from 290 to 320 nm and are known as the burning rays. These rays are most intense in the U.S. between 10 AM and 4 PM from April through October. But they can also burn and damage your skin year-round – for example, if you’re at high altitudes on snow or ice (which bounce back rays so they hit the skin twice). UVB rays do not significantly penetrate glass. In addition to producing sunburn, UVB can contribute to photoaging, and skin cancer.
Previously, sunscreens could claim to be “sweat-proof,” or “water-proof,” but all products eventually wash off, so the FDA now only allows “sweat-resistant” and “water-resistant” claims. Products labeled “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant” must state how long the SPF protection lasts based on standardized testing (either up to 40 or 80 minutes).
Since sunscreens are considered an FDA over-the-counter (OTC) product, they are also required to be labeled with an expiration date.
You should definitely toss sunscreen that’s past its expiration date, that’s been exposed to high heat, or has changed color or consistency.
- How to decode sunscreen lingo. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2016, from https://www.aad.org/public/spot-skin-cancer/learn-about-skin-cancer/prevent/sunscreen-labels/how-to-decode-sunscreen-lingo
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2011). Sunscreen Labeling According to 2011 Final Rule. Retrieved March 21, 2016, from http://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/UCM258718.pdf
- Sunscreen FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2016, from https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs
- How to apply sunscreen for maximum protection - Harvard Health. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2016, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/skin-and-hair/how-to-apply-sunscreen-for-maximum-protection