I know, I know. Summer is officially over, so why talk about sunscreen? We should store it away, right? Nope. Those nasty and sneaky UV rays are present all year round, and so we need to apply sunscreen everyday to defend our skin from the damage they would otherwise cause.
But we can’t use just any sunscreen. We need one labelled “broad-spectrum”. But what does that mean exactly? And what about water-resistant, the little stars on the bottle and all those mysterious words stamped on the label? Sunscreen lingo can be so confusing! Here’s a little guide that will help you decipher it:
Broad spectrum: a sunscreen that protects against the entire UVA and UVB spectrum. Unfortunately, not all do. As we’ll shortly see below, SPF only refers to UVB rays, so always check the label to make sure your sunscreen contains UVA filters too.
Chemical sunscreen: a type of sunscreen that contains synthetic sunscreen agents, such as avobenzone, oxybenzone and mexoryl. It works by absorbing UV light and transforming it into a less damaging form of energy, heat.
PA: amount of protection offered against UVA rays. The more plus signs follow the letters PA, the higher the protection is.
Physical sunscreen: a type of sunscreen that contains physical sunscreen agents, ie titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, two white minerals. It works by creating a shield on the skin that reflects UV rays away from it. Gentler and less likely to cause irritations than chemical sunscreens, physical ones can, however, sometimes leave an unattractive white cast behind.
Plus sign: when the plus sign follows the SPF number, it means “more than”. For instance, Australian regulations state that a sunscreen labelled 50+, must “provide at least SPF60 in testing”.
SPF: short for sun protection factor. It applies only to UVB rays and simply determines the amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting a sunburn. It is calculated by measuring the burn rate on unprotected skin.
UVA rays: UVA rays emit long wave ultraviolet radiation. They are present every day (regardless of whether the weather’s good or not), from the moment the sun comes up to when it goes down, and can penetrate through windows and clouds. UV rays cause premature aging and increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
UVB rays: UVB rays emit medium wave ultraviolet radiation. They are stronger between 10 a.m and 4 p.m., and, unlike UV rays, can’t pass through clouds or windows. But that doesn’t mean they are less dangerous. UVB rays are responsible for sunburns and can also cause skin cancer.
Star rating: according to the British Association of Dermatologists, “the stars range from 0 to 5 and indicate the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen in comparison to UVB, in other words the ratio between the level of protection afforded by the UVA protection and the UVB protection. Be aware that if you choose a low SPF it may still have a high level of stars, not because it is providing lots of UVA protection, but because the ratio between the UVA and UVB protection is about the same.”
Sunblock: physical sunscreens that block out UV rays. The term has been recently banned by the FDA because it could lead consumers to believe it would block out ALL UV rays, but no product can do that. A very small amount of UV rays always manages to reach the skin anyway.
Sunscreen: a product formulated to protect skin from the harmful sun rays.
Water-resistant: a sunscreen that retains its effectiveness in preventing sunburns (but not premature aging) after swimming or sweating for a certain amount of time (either 40 or 80 minutes). Waterproof cannot be used anymore in the USA because, according to the FDA, the terms overstates the effectiveness of the protection provided by the sunscreen, thus lulling consumers into a false sense of security.
Do you know any other sunscreen terms that I haven’t mentioned in this post? Share it in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list. 🙂