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Dermatology Center for Skin Health, PLLC Blog

Sunscreen Labels: How to Read Them

[fa icon="calendar"] Aug 7, 2019 9:17:00 AM / by Dermatology Center for Skin Health, PLLC

Dermatology Center for Skin Health, PLLC

Here’s a question for you - why is it important to read a sunscreen label correctly? It is essential to know that no sunscreen product can offer 100 percent protection against the sun’s UV rays. There are products on the market that provide UV protection close to that level. Get informed on what exactly you are putting on your skin.

Continue reading and learn how to decode the ingredients on the back of your sunscreen bottle. 


Broad-Spectrum: The use of sunscreens containing broad-spectrum can assist in the prevention of skin cancer, early skin aging, and sunburn. This ingredient protects against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Both solar wavelengths are proven to damage the skin and cause cancer. UVA rays penetrate the skin deeper than UVB, causing wrinkles, sagging, and premature aging. UVB rays damage the skin’s upper surface and are the leading cause of sunburn. 

The UV radiation in sunlight is divided into several ranges depending on the wavelength. The U.S. Broad Spectrum Test is a laboratory test that measures a sunscreen product’s absorbance of UV rays across the UVB and UVA regions of the spectrum. The test is referred to as the ‘critical wavelength’ test. 

Sun Protection Factor (SPF): SPF measures the level of protection a person receives from sunscreen before UVB rays start to burn the skin. With no sunscreen, your skin starts to redden in 20-minutes. The SPF numbers are determined in a lab. The number associated with SPF shows how much UVB light sunscreen can filter out. For example, SPF 15 covers 93 percent of the sun’s UVB rays, and SPF 30 covers 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the more sunburn protection a sunscreen offers. 

The Skin Cancer Foundation Seal of Recommendation: The seal of recommendation proves that a product is safe and effective. Scientific data for each product submitted for the Seal of Recommendation is reviewed by a volunteer committee of photobiologists, experts who study interactions between UV rays and the skin. The Daily Use Seal is used for sunscreens that protect against sun exposure in short periods; includes UVA protection requirement. The Active Seal is awarded to sunscreens intended to protect against extended sun exposure during recreational activities; includes UVA protection and water resistance requirement.

Active Ingredients: The two main types of active sun ingredients are chemical and physical. The label lists these primary ingredients in sunscreens that protect skin against UV rays. Chemical ingredients (avobenzone, benzophenone) absorb UV rays and reduce penetration into the skin. Physical ingredients (titanium dioxide, zinc oxide) lay on top of the skin and deflect UV rays. 

Additional terms labeled on sunscreen: 

  • “Sports”: The term means the sunscreen will stay on wet skin for 40 or 80-minutes. Reapply sports sunscreen when sweating, drying off with a towel, getting out of the water, and every two hours. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined this term for sunscreen. 
  • “Baby”: This means the sunscreen contains the active ingredients of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These ingredients are less likely to irritate a baby’s sensitive skin. The FDA has not defined this term for sunscreen. 
  • “Sensitive skin”: It often means the sunscreen contains the active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. The sunscreen does not contain fragrance, oils, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), or active ingredients in chemical sunscreens. The FDA has not defined this term for sunscreen.
  • “Insect repellant”: The AAD recommends looking for another sunscreen if the one you are using contains insect repellent. It is suggested to buy separate products so the sunscreen can be applied liberally, and insect repellent can be applied sparingly. 
  • “Water-resistant” or “waterproof”: Indicates whether the sunscreen remains active for 40 to 80-minutes when you are swimming or sweating. No sunscreen is completely “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” so the FDA prohibits these terms. Sweat and water will wash away the sunscreen from our skin. 


The FDA regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs. The FDA ensures sunscreen products are safe and effective. The FDA reviews proper sunscreen active ingredients. Only ingredients on the FDA’s approved list are to be used in sunscreen products marketed in the United States. 

Sunscreen effectiveness is determined by a variety of factors from SPF, broad-spectrum protection, water-resistance, and if the product is used as instructed. The sunscreen requirements of FDA’s rules outline how marketed sunscreen products are to be labeled and tested for UVA and UVB protection. All sunscreens in the U.S. must be tested for SPF performance using the same FDA designated clinical tests. The SPF value on sunscreen products is reliable and credible by the use of testing methods; ensuring sunscreens are safe and effective in protecting the consumer from harmful rays. 

The amount of protection received from a sunscreen depends on the following factors:

  • Skin type: All skin colors are susceptible to sunburn and exposure effects of UV rays. Those who have been treated for skin cancer and/or people with pale skin and blonde, red, or light brown hair need to be especially careful in the sun. 
  • Amount and frequency of sunscreen applied: FDA recommends you use sunscreen 15-minutes before going out in the sun and reapplying it every two hours. Sunscreen should be applied liberally and evenly on all areas exposed to the sun. 
  • Water-resistance level of product: FDA’s regulations require that if a product’s front label claims to be water-resistant, it needs to designate the protective level of 40 or 80-minutes. 

Sunscreens do lose effectiveness over time, so it’s crucial to reapply every two hours and after swimming or heavy sweating. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher, or an SPF of 30 or higher for extended stays outdoors. 


At The Dermatology Center for Skin Health, PLLC., we want you to be safe and knowledgeable when it comes to your skincare. 

For further prevention methods from skin cancer, our team recommends:

  • Staying out of the sun during peak hours of 10 A.M. and 4 P.M.
  • Covering up the arms and legs with protective clothing
  • Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses
  • Using sunscreen year-round of SPF 30 or greater
  • Check your skin monthly and contact your dermatologist if you notice any changes
  • Getting regular skin examinations 

Our priority is to deliver quality care in a comfortable setting. Our experienced medical professionals believe that informed patients are better equipped to make decisions about their health and well-being. 

Have questions? Please call us at 304-598-3888 to make an appointment and see one of our dermatologists today.


Topics: skin care, sunscreen

Dermatology Center for Skin Health, PLLC

Written by Dermatology Center for Skin Health, PLLC

Our priority is to deliver complete, compassionate care to our patients while educating and assisting them as they make care decisions regarding the health and beauty of their skin.