How To Decipher Sunscreen Labels

by Gio
how to decipher sunscreen labels and lingo

Can you decipher sunscreen labels?

I mean, what does “broad-spectrum” really mean? Does your sunscreen need to be water-resistant, too? And why the heck are there stars on the bottle?

The law states brands need to give you all the info to help you make an informed choice (and I’m totally on board with that). But why can’t they write it in plain English?!

Worry not, my smart friend. I’m here to decipher sunscreen lingo for you:

Broad spectrum: a sunscreen that protects against the entire UVA and UVB spectrum. You’d this is a given, but so many sunscreens don’t do it.

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 like chemical sunscreens, but it can leave a white, greasy cast on the skin.

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’s calculated by measuring the burn rate on unprotected skin.

UVA rays: UVA rays emit long wave ultraviolet radiation. They are present every day, 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, 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 (usually between 1 and 5%) always bypasses sunscreen and reaches skin anyway.

Sunscreen: a product formulated to protect skin from ultraviolet radiation and the damage it causes.

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. 🙂

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Trisha September 24, 2013 - 3:17 pm

I’ll always prefer physical sunscreens to chemical. My skin has made that decision for me. 🙂

beautifulwithbrains September 24, 2013 - 9:57 pm

Trisha, I much prefer them too. They’re less likely to irritate skin and provide great protection.

Hunni September 25, 2013 - 4:50 am

I’m horrible…I always forget sunblock when I go out. When I do use it, I love the aerosol sprays because they do a good job of keeping you feeling refreshed too

beautifulwithbrains September 25, 2013 - 5:53 am

Hunni, try keeping the sunblock in a place where you can always see it before going out. That’s how I got into the habit of wearing it. It’s easier to forget about it if it is stashed somewhere you can’t see it.

Kimberly October 27, 2013 - 8:38 pm

I use a sunscreen with Avobenzone in it from LRP Anthelios Sx line. I’m concerned that my makeup is deactivating the Avobenzone in my sunscreen because I heard that Titanium or Zinc ingredients in makeup can destabilize it. Is this true? And do you know of any makeup brands that do not contain these ingredients??

beautifulwithbrains November 1, 2013 - 10:14 am

Kimberley, it is true that uncoated Titanium and Zinc ingredients can affect the stability of avobenzone, although how much would depend on the product. To fix this, you have several options. You can keep using your avobenzone sunscreen, but reapply it more often. You can use makeup products with coated Titanium and Zinc ingredients that don’t degrade avobenzone. Or you can switch to a physical sunscreen. Hope this helps.

Kimberly November 8, 2013 - 2:32 am

How do I know if my makeup is coated or not? I use Makeup Forever Multi Use Powder. It has titanium dioxide, but it has mica and silica.

beautifulwithbrains November 8, 2013 - 5:04 pm

Kimberley, when it is, it is usually written on the packaging, although not all companies follow this rule. I always assume it isn’t coated, unless otherwise stated.


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