Decoding a Sunscreen Label

Jul 22 2016 skin allergies skin care sunscreen sunscreen label zinc oxide

With so many different types and brands of sunscreens available on the market, it can be confusing to know which one is right for you. It’s important not to fall for fancy packaging and false claims pictured on products but instead to know how to read a sunscreen label and to know exactly what you are getting.

To make it easier for consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has simplified the rules for sunscreen labels. The primary guidelines concern Sun Protection Factor (SPF), broad spectrum coverage and water resistance. There is additional information on the labels to help you narrow your choice.


SPF is a measure of how long a person can stay in the sun before the skin starts to burn.  The FDA recommends that consumers look for a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. But keep in mind, no matter what the SPF, sunscreens start to lose effectiveness over time, so it’s important to reapply every two hours and after swimming or heavy sweating.  Also note that in sunscreens above SPF 50, the amount of additional sun protection is negligible.

Broad spectrum

It’s essential for your sunscreen to offer broad spectrum protection, which means that it offers effective protection against both UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B) rays, the solar wavelengths proven to damage the skin. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB, and are the chief cause of wrinkles, sagging and other signs of aging. UVB rays damage the skin’s upper surface and are the main cause of sunburn. Both can cause skin cancer.

Water resistance

The FDA has forbidden companies from claiming their products are “waterproof” or that they provide “all-day protection” on any sunscreen packaging, since no sunscreen is fully water- or sweat-proof. The terms “water-resistant” and “sweat-resistant” indicate whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when you are swimming or sweating.

Expiration date: Always check the bottle for an expiration date. Do not use a sunscreen after the expiration date as products can lose effectiveness over time.

Active ingredients: The FDA requires all products to list their active ingredients on the back of the bottle along with their concentrations. There are two main types of active sunscreen ingredients: chemical and physical. Chemical ingredients such as avobenzone and benzophenone, work by absorbing UV, reducing its penetration into the skin, whereas physical ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, stay on top of the skin and deflect UV rays. Many sunscreens available today combine chemical and physical ingredients.

Other considerations:

A few other things to look for on sunscreen labels will depend on your personal needs and preferences. For instance, some products are made for sensitive skin and are PABA-free, paraben-free and/or fragrance-free. Some products may be listed as non-comedogenic or oil-free, meaning they won’t cause breakouts, which can be especially important for sunscreen for the face. Those with nut or gluten allergies may want to find a product that does not contain any of these allergens.