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Understanding Sunscreen Labels

understanding sunscreen labels

understanding spf and sunscreen labels

Sometimes the back of a sunscreen label looks like a list of ingredients in an OTC cold medicine, or a set of numbers that look like a 10th grade algebra problem.  So many words and numbers you don’t understand or science you aren’t familiar with.  But shouldn't you be knowledgeable about something you’re putting on your skin?  Let’s break down the label and figure out the basics of what you are using, why you should be using it, and how.  Also, what is in sunscreen that makes it effective, and does higher SPF mean better protection?

What is sunscreen?

Sunscreen is a product combining several ingredients to help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays from penetrating the skin.  There are 2 different types of ultraviolet radiation, one is UVA and the other is UVB.  Ultraviolet radiation (UV) is the light spectrum that reaches earth in the suns most direct path.  The actual wavelengths of radiation are shorter than light making it invisible to the naked eye.  Both UVA and UVB are able to pass through the atmosphere allowing its access to the skin and eyes.  

Damage from these rays cause the skin to age prematurely causing it to develop wrinkles, age spots, discoloration, and dryness and increase your risk of skin cancer.  It can also decrease the effectiveness of your immune system thereby increasing your risk for infection or damage your eyes.

Sunscreen is used to protect your skin from the damage caused by exposure to UVA and UVB, but the type, strength, application and ingredients vary.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor.  It’s a number assigned to a sunscreen to measure the products ability to prevent UVB rays from causing damage to the skin.  Consider this, if you spend 20 minutes unprotected in the sun, your skin can start to turn red and burn.  Using a sunscreen that is SPF 20 is made to prevent your skin from reddening for 20 times longer or a little over 6 hours.  You can also quantify with percentages meaning SPF 20 filters out about 95 percent of the suns incoming UVB rays.  

But keep in mind, no sunscreen is made to be effective for longer than 2 hours, which requires reapplication.  Also, you may not necessarily notice reddening of the skin after exposure to the sun, but that does not mean no damage is being incurred.  

Who should be using sunscreen?

Sunscreen should be used on a daily basis for anyone over the age of 6 months to maximize protection.  Believe it or not, even those who sit inside are still prone to exposure if they work near windows.  While it’s recommended that children under six months not be exposed to the sun, there are products on the market targeted for this age range.  Because of the chemical composition of some sunscreens, however, providing shade and a protective layer of clothing are the safest course of action.

How much sunscreen should I apply and how often?

In order to maximize the full SPF of sunscreen, about 1oz should be applied on your exposed skin.  However studies have shown that most people only apply about half that amount making the SPF on their bodies lower than the amount defined on the packaging. Sunscreen should also be applied no less than 30 minutes before exposure to UVA and UVB rays.  This application before exposure allows the ingredients of the sunscreen to fully bind to your skin and thereafter be reapplied no more than every two hours.  If you’re swimming, toweling off, or sweating it should be applied immediately following each of those things.  

uv damage from sun exposure

It may seem like you are going through sunscreen very quickly or that you are over saturating your skin with protection, but based on scientific studies, research by medical professionals and countless hours of observation and examination, this is what has been determined the most effective course of action in preventing permanent damage caused by exposure to the sun.

What type of sunscreen should I be using?

Some products you may already be using like after shave lotion, moisturizer or make up can be manufactured with SPF.  This amount is sufficient with minimal exposure to the sun.  However, if you work outside, near windows, spend a lot of time in the outdoors, participate in water sports or have particularly sensitive skin, you may be required a more powerful, water-resistant formula designed to hold together on your skin for longer periods of time at a greater level of protection.  

Consider the amount of time you spend exposed to the sun on a daily basis.  Be flexible to the amount you may need weekdays verses weekends or if you participate in more seasonal sports.  The key is to use it and use it smartly to protect your skin from premature signs of aging or increasing your risk for skin cancer.

Most professionals recommend using an SPF 20 or higher, but remember to use the full amount (1oz) in order to utilize the amount on the packaging.

What are the ingredients of sunscreen?

The FDA (Federal Drug Administration) has approved 17 active ingredients in sunscreen:

  • Aminobenzoic acid
  • Avobenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ecamsule
  • Ensuilzone
  • Homosalate
  • Meradimate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Octisalate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Padimate O
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Trolamine salicylate
  • Zinc oxide

There are 2 different types of sunscreen ingredients: physical and chemical, chemical ingredients providing protection only to UVB protection meaning the chemical ingredients are then combined with physical ingredients to formulate a sunscreen effective at protecting both from UVA and UVB rays, or the sun completely.  Tanning lotions or sunscreens are used to protect the skin from harsh sun rays, but still allow the skin’s naturally tanning to occur by filtering out UVA rays, but not completely blocking them.  

spf labels

However, physical ingredients are designed to block out the sun’s rays completely.  This sunblock provides additional protection to ensure you don’t burn.  But the thicker substance can be hard on oily skin, so keep that in mind when choosing the right sun protection for you.

Myths about sunscreen

There are many myths associated with sun protection and it’s important to know the truth behind these ideas in order to provide the best protection for yourself and your skin.

Myth #1: 

If it’s cold or cloudy, you don’t need to wear sunscreen. True or False?

False.  The sun’s rays are still passing through the earth’s atmosphere on cold days making it just as important to protect your skin as on a warm day.  Also, if you’re on the slopes or in an area with a lot of snow, the sun’s rays can also reflect off the white or ice on the ground increasing your skin’s exposure making it even more prone to redness without proper protection.  This makes applying sunscreen in the winter extra important.

On a cloudy day, 40 percent of the sun’s UV rays are still reaching the earth’s surface.  That 40 percent is enough to cause significant damage to unprotected skin, especially over a period of time.

Myth #2

Wearing sunscreen can result in Vitamin D deficiency.  True or False?

False, for now.  No studies have been shown to prove this claim.  However, there is still some controversy over the issue.  Fortunately, Vitamin D is available in other resources like eggs, milk, orange juice and salmon.

Myth #3

I haven’t been protecting myself since I was young, so it’s too late now. True or False?

False.  A study recently showed that humans only get 25 percent of our total exposure to the sun by the age of 18.  Men over the age of 40 are known to have the most exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays because they spend a larger amount of time outside.  So while it may be too little too late when it comes to reversing damage that has already been acquired, protecting yourself from harmful sun rays will help to protect you from future damages and reduce your risk for skin cancer.

Myth #4

Getting a ‘base tan’ will help prevent skin cancer.  True or False?

False.  Regardless of popular belief, there is no such thing as a healthy tan.  Tanning can cause permanent damage to skin cells which increases the risk of skin cancer and premature aging.  Not only that, but tanning beds can be more dangerous than even the sun and has been identified as a contributing risk factor in three different types of skin cancers.

There are self-tanners, bronzers, and spray tanning to give the effect of glowing, bronze skin without the harmful effects of UV rays.  

apply sunscreen

Myth #5

Using a higher SPF means more protection.  True or False?

True, but not always.   Using sunscreen with SPF 50 is going to provide protection to 98 percent of harmful, incoming UVB rays while SPF 30 is protecting against only 93 percent.  It may seem like an insignificant difference between the two, but when you are considering extended exposure to your skin by dangerous ray penetrating the earth’s atmosphere, it makes a difference.  

Research has shown that when an individual is wearing a higher SPF sunscreen, they are more likely to spend longer amounts of time in the sun, but the sunscreen is only effective for less than 2 hours based on the amount of time it’s on your body, not necessarily the strength of the SPF.  Experts are more concerned with the amount of sunscreen you put on your body even more so than how high the SPF is.

Applying Sunscreen Properly

The process of applying sunscreen should be taken seriously – it can be the difference in your immune system’s ability to fight infection, fight the signs of premature aging and reduce risk of skin cancer.  Consider these 5 key steps in applying sunscreen properly:

  • For daily use, choose a sunscreen with SPF 20 or higher.  For extended exposure to the sun, select a formula with SPF 30 to provide additional protection against UVB and UVA rays.  
  • Apply your sunscreen no less than 30 minutes before exposing your skin to the sun to allow it ample time to effectively bond to the skin’s surface.
  • Use 1oz of sunscreen for anyone over the age of 12, about half for a child under the age of 12.  Rub the sunscreen thoroughly into the skin.
  • Apply sunscreen to all bare skin exposed to the sun.  Be sure to remember your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet, shoulders, arms, chest, abdomen, back, legs and back of hands.  You may need to ask a friend to help to apply sunscreen to those hard to reach places.  If you have thinning hair or a receding hairline, remember to apply sunscreen carefully to maximize protection.
  • Whether you’re swimming, exercising, working outside, relaxing at the beach or going on a walk, sunscreen needs to be applied no more than every two hours to prevent redness and burning.  If your skin is particularly sensitive, it may be wise to reapply every 60 to 90 minutes.  Reapply liberally throughout the day.  Even on cloudy days or in the winter, sunscreen should not be ignored.


If you need help know what to buy, keep these things in mind:

  • Chemical sunscreens which contain ingredients absorbing UVB and UVA rays create a film on the skin protecting it from ultraviolet radiation (UVR).
  • Sunblocks provide better protection against UVB and UVA rays making them more effective at preventing sunburn.
  • Physical sunblocks are designed to reflect the UV radiation of the sun back into the atmosphere.  These ingredients include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.  They provide the fullest amount of protection for your skin and are more effective at preventing skin irritation and redness.
  • If you’re not able to find a sunscreen that contains both UVA and UVB protection or if your skin is particularly sensitive to sunscreens, look for a label that reads broad-spectrum protection.  This type of protection is for all UVR.  
  • SPF measurement only pertains to the protection against UVB rays, there is no measurement for UVA absorption, at this time.  

Keep all these tips in mind when applying sunscreen. Also, be sure to shop for products that do NOT mislead you: watch this video from NBC News to become aware of how some sunscreen companies try to trick you.


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