pa sunscreen meaning

Ever wondered what the PA+ symbols on your sunscreens bottles stand for? SPF is all about how much sun protection a sunscreen gives you, so what does PA+ stands for? I mean, there must be a reason why this acronym has been popping up on so many sunscreen bottles in the past few years… What is your sunscreen trying to tell you? Let’s solve the mystery:

What Is SPF?

Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to wear sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun? Little they did know back then that SPF referred to sunburn-inducing UVB rays only.

Yep, that’s right. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is a measure of how well a sunscreen product will protect your skin from UVB rays – and how long you can stay in the sun without getting a sunburn.

The higher the SPF number, the more protection your sunscreen provides. SPF 15% blocks 93% of UV rays. SPF 30 blocks 97%. And SPF 50 blocks 98%. You may think the difference is minimal, but trust me, every percentage point counts.

Most sunscreens back then were designed to protect from UVB rays only. Those are the ones that make your skin burn. So if you didn’t get a sunburn your sunscreen was working, right? Not really. UVB rays aren’t the only type of UV radiation that does some serious damage to your skin. The sun emits UVA rays too.

UVA rays are to blame for premature aging, including wrinkles and dark spots. Plus, together with UVB rays, they contribute to the development of cancer. Yet, until a few years ago, we didn’t have a way to measure sun protection from UVA rays. How crazy is that?! Enter PA.

Related: What’s The Difference Between UVA and UVB rays?

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What Is PA+ Rating?

Short answer: PA is for UVA rays what SPF is for UVB rays.

PA stands for Protection Grade of UVA rays. It’s a rating system created in Japan to indicate the level of protection from UVA rays. The more plus signs next to PA, the higher the protection (the maximum is 3 +++).

  • PA+: Low protection
  • PA++: Moderate protection
  • PA+++: High protection
  • PA++++: Very high protection 

PA Isn’t The Only Way To Measure UVA Protection

While SPF tends to be universal, scientists haven’t agreed on a system that measures UV protection that everyone can get on board with. Part of it is because we still don’t have a full understanding of the complex interplay between UVA and UVB rays. But also, everyone’s response to UV radiation is difference. So, every part of the world has its own criteria and methods to measure UVA protection. Here the predominant UVA standards worldwide:


WHERE IT’S USED: Japan, Korea, and China.

METHOD: It compares Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) on human skin with and without sunscreen.


  • PA + equals a 2–4 UVA-PF (50–75% protection against UVA rays)
  • PA ++ equals a 4–8 UVA-PF (75–88% protection against UVA rays)
  • PA +++ equals a 8–16 UVA-PF (88– 94% protection against UVA rays)
  • PA ++++ equals a 16 or more UVA-PF (94% or higher protection against UVA rays)


WHERE IT’S USED: United States.

METHOD: It evaluates how well has a sunscreen protects human skin across the entire UV spectrum (290-400nm).


  • It simply says “Broad-Spectrum” on the packaging.
  • At least 90% of UV light must be below the wavelength of 370 nanometers.
  • It offers better UVA protection than a sunscreen that doesn’t have this label.

UVA Circle/Seal

WHERE IT’S USED: Europe and Australia.

METHOD: It evaluates Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) with an in-vivo model (on artificial skin).


  • On your sunscreen bottles, you’ll find a symbol that depicts the letters UVA inside a circle.
  • The sunscreen’s UVA protection level must be at least ⅓ of its SPF number. If a sunscreen has a SPF of 30, the UVA protection is at least 10, although it could be higher.
  • It doesn’t tell you the exact level of UVA protection the sunscreen gives you, but only the minimal level you can expect.

Star System

WHERE IT’S USED: UK (Yep, the UK always wants to do things differently from the rest of Europe).

METHOD: evaluates how well a sunscreen protects throughout UV spectrum (compares UVA protection against UVB protection)


  • 3 stars = 0.60 – 0.79 protection from UVA rays compared to UVB
  • 4 stars = 0.80 – 0.89 protection from UVA rays compared to UVB
  • 5 stars = 0.90 or more protection from UVA rays compared to UVB

What Are The Best Sunscreens With PA Rating?

If you’re looking for a sunscreen with a high PA rating that offers outstanding sun protection (from both UVA and UVB rays), here are my favourite picks:

  • Dr Dennis Gross All-Physical Ultimate Defense Broad Spectrum Suncreen SPF 50 PA++++ ($42.00): A zinc oxide sunscreen with soothing agents to protect skin from UV rays and soothe inflammation. Available at Cult Beauty, Dermstore, Nordstrom, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
  • Kiehl’s Ultra Light Daily UV Defense SPF 50 PA++++ (£44.00): A simple, chemical, fragrance-free sunscreen that protects you from the entire UV range. Available at Boots, Cult Beauty, Look Fantastic, Sephora, and SpaceNK.
  • Murad City Skin Age Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 / PA++++ ($69.00): A mineral sunscreen enriched with natural oils, soothing agents, and antioxidants to provide broad-spectrum protection, prevent wrinkles, and soothe inflammation. It rubs in well and isn’t greasy. Available at Cult Beauty, Look Fantastic, Murad, Sephora, SpaceNK and Ulta.

The Bottom Line

No matter what country you live in, always make sure your sunscreen provides adequate protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Using the PA rating system is just a way to ensure that. And now you know what the best options are, too.