Reading sunscreen labels wasn’t a big deal some decades ago. Because in the past, sunscreen had a simple task. Its main job was protection against sun rays on sunny days on the beach. But today, they have more responsibility, and for good reasons.
We use it as a shield against photoaging, the appearance of wrinkles, sunspots, and most important of all, skin cancer. And it is not only used on summer days but rather, every day, because SPF is your BFF!
A modern-day sunscreen is a multitasker and includes many ingredients and a bunch of buzzwords (kind of important ones though).
If you are confused and overwhelmed by a bunch of keywords on your sunscreen label, today is your lucky day! Because today, we are breaking down essential sunscreen elements and helping you find what you are looking for.
Nothing is too difficult to decipher. Neither is your sunscreen. So, here is all about reading sunscreen labels. Discover how to read sunscreen labels in these 5 easy steps.
#1. What is SPF? Or Reading sunscreen labels 101
Sun Protection Factor – simply put, SPF refers to how well a sunscreen product can protect your skin from sunburn. The main job of sunscreen is filtering out the UV lights. The number after SPF indicates how much it takes for skin to get red after you apply the sunscreen. It is NOT an indicator of how long you can stay out in the sun.
If you want to get real scientific about it, according to the Australian Academy of Science, this is how the SPF measuring process goes: Laboratory tests are carried out on an untanned patch of skin (such as the buttocks) of human volunteers.
Then, sunscreen is applied liberally to the skin, which is then exposed to simulated sunlight via UV lamps. Measurements are taken of how long it takes the skin to get a minimal burn when covered with sunscreen, and how long it takes to get the same minimal redness without it.
Wait, we are not done yet. To get the SPF factor, the number of seconds it takes a patch of skin to slightly redden when covered in sunscreen is divided by the number of seconds it takes to slightly redden when there is no sunscreen applied. Say, it took 300 seconds for the skin to burn with sunscreen, and 10 seconds to burn without it. 300 is divided by 10, which is 30. The SPF is 30.
Now that we have done the math, let’s move on to the main keywords and their explanations.
#2. Broad spectrum formula
This one comes at the top of our reading sunscreen labels guide.
As you can tell from the title, it offers full protection from both UVA and UVB lights. UVA rays are the main culprits behind skin aging, saggy and wrinkly skin. While both of them pose a real threat to your skin health, UVA rays do more damage since, in comparison with UVB rays.
They reach the skin faster and penetrate into the skin more deeply. Consistent UV light exposure increases the skin cancer risk over time. That’s why it is super important to take preventative measures to take full control of your skin health.
It is also important to note that no sunscreen filters out 100% of UVB lights. And because of this, taking additional measures is vital. You have to wear sun-protective clothes, hats, UV lights blocking sunglasses, especially during hot seasons.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends always using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher – SPF 30 or higher for extended stays outdoors.
#3. Water resistant VS Waterproof
I know I am looking for the word water-resistant when reading sunscreen labels if I am about to hit the beach. And that’s for a good reason. According to AAD, the use of the term waterproof for sunscreens is wrong. Because sweat and water wash the sunscreen of the skin, no sunscreen can label itself as waterproof. Long story short, water-resistant doesn’t mean waterproof.
However, there are water-resistant sunscreens that allow the product to effectively stay on the skin for 40 minutes when in contact with water. In addition, there are very water-resistant sunscreens that allow the product to stay on the skin for 80 minutes in water. But mind you, you need to reapply those products every 2 hours.
THESKINVERSE SIDENOTE: There is a simple explanation for reapplying sunscreen too: the sun rays break down the product, therefore, making it lose its effectiveness. In order for the sunscreen to continue doing its job, you must reapply it every 2 hours.
Another factor to take into account is the amount of sunscreen you apply to your skin – that is, a generous amount. Remember that you are looking for full protection, so applying an adequate amount is very important. Did you know that an SPF 30 sunscreen applied properly will give you better protection than an SPF 50 and plus sunscreen applied too thinly? So, don’t ever skimp on your sunscreen.
#4. Chemical VS Mineral Sunscreens
There are mainly two types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral (aka natural, or physical sunscreens)
Don’t let the word “chemical” freak you out, they are not the evil kind. Chemical sunscreen is formulated with sunscreen ingredients like avobenzone and benzophenone. They work by absorbing the sun’s rays on the skin and converting them into heat.
Mineral sunscreens, however, work a bit differently. They just sit on the top of the skin and basically, deflect the UV rays as a shield. They are formulated with zinc oxide and titanium oxide. More on those, in a second.
#5. Active and Inactive Sunscreen ingredients
How to read sunscreen labels with active ingredients? Easy! You will usually find them on the back of the bottle.
There are two main types of active ingredients: chemical and physical, just like the sunscreens we mentioned two seconds ago.
Both of them do their thing; meaning they protect the skin from UV rays. As mentioned above, the main difference is that chemical ingredients safeguard the skin by absorbing the UV rays. Mineral (in physical sunscreens) ingredients deflect the sun rays before they reach the surface of the skin.
The most common chemical ingredients are octinoxate, avobenzone, octisalate, ecamsule, octocrylene, homosalate. You will find mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in physical sunscreens.
Generally speaking, chemical sunscreens have a lighter formula and are great for oily skin types. And they also don’t leave a white cast like mineral ingredients would do. Mineral ingredients would work best for sensitive skin or if you are prone to breaking out often. Check out our blog post for a detailed explanation!
Bonus: What is PABA in sunscreens?
This is one of the sunscreen ingredients you might stumble upon. PABA in sunscreens stands for para-aminobenzoic acid, and you can find them in several foods, like grains, meat, etc.
PABA tends to increase skin sensitivity, that’s why if you have sensitive skin, stay away from this ingredient. Studies also show that PABA disrupts thyroid activity which triggers symptoms such as muscle weakness, fatigue, and several other health concerns.
Its use is widely banned in Canada and European Union, however, in the US, FDA allows its use at certain concentrations.
Read the sunscreen label carefully and avoid these common PABA derivatives:
- padimate O
- 4-aminobenzoic acid
- para-aminobenzoic acid
- p-aminobenzoic acid
- 2-ethylhexyl ester
Final word from THESKINVERSE
While protecting your skin from the sun is important, it is even more important to be knowledgeable while reading sunscreen labels. Once you understand how to read a sunscreen label and avoid common bad guys, you are good to go. Just like anything in life, it takes time and practice.
Word of advice is to look for sunscreens that agree with your skin. Look out for sunscreen ingredients that might do more harm than good 🙂