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Sunscreen Labels Decoded

by Kaitlin Schupp, PAC

Picking out a sunscreen can feel like a very daunting task when there are so many options. Let’s dive into how to read a sunscreen label so you can have more confidence when making a choice. 

Do I really need sunscreen at all? 

Sun damage of the skin can either be acute like sunburn, or chronic, like the gradual changes of the skin caused by an accumulation of sun exposure throughout your life. Not only can chronic sun damage increase your risk of skin cancer, but it can also lead to worsening skin appearance; such as freckling, wrinkling and/or discolored skin. Protecting your skin with a good sunscreen can help prevent these changes from occurring. 

What Does the SPF Number Mean?

SPF is an acronym for sun protection factor. The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product versus the amount of time it would take without any sunscreen. For example, with an SPF of 30, it would take 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen. 

So does a higher SPF mean better protection?

The simple answer is yes. However, it is a little more complicated than that.

Products with very high SPFs often create a false sense of security. People who use them tend to stay out in the sun much longer. They may skip reapplying. And they may think they don’t need to seek shade, wear a hat, or cover up with clothing.

What Does Broad Spectrum Mean?

SPF only refers to protection from UVB rays. There are two types of rays that can damage your skin. It is important to choose a sunscreen that protects your skin from both kinds of damaging rays.

  1. UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in developing skin cancer. A sunscreen’s SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides.

  2. UVA rays cause skin damage that leads to tanning as well as skin aging and wrinkles. The shortest wavelengths of UVA rays also contribute to sunburn.

The difference in the sun’s rays is why It’s important to look for the words “broad spectrum” on a product’s label. This means it has ingredients that can protect you from UVA as well as UVB rays.

SPF Sun Protection Is Not Enough

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for any extended outdoor activity. We also recommend wearing a daily facial sunscreen 356 days of the year. Regardless of the SPF, though, it’s important to reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating if your sunscreen’s not water resistant.

What is the best overall sun strategy to protect my skin?

A combination approach is the best answer. Using a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher is important, but also incorporating sun protective clothing, and using safe sun habits is key. Seeking shade during peak sun exposure, wearing a wide brim hat, wearing UV protective clothing, and sunglasses are all good examples of ways you can protect your skin.