You know you should be wearing sunscreen every day. In fact, you should be reapplying it several times a day, every day, to protect yourself against exposure to the sun’s harmful UV, or ultraviolet, rays. Chances are you’ve heard of those bad boys. You’re also probably aware that sunscreen is an important tool in preventing sunburn, premature aging and skin damage, as well as skin cancer. But do you know what the confusing terminology on a sunscreen label really means? Probably not—and unfortunately, you can join the club on that one.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology, or JAMA Dermatology, revealed that less than half of its participants—all patients at a dermatology clinic—“understood the definition of the SPF value” displayed on common sunscreen labels. Why is this such a widespread issue? Part of the reason most people are confused as to how to properly read sunscreen labels is that less than 10 years ago, they looked much different.
In February 2019, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) advanced new proposed regulations to ensure the improved safety and effectiveness of sunscreen products, including the requirement that “sunscreens with an SPF value of 15 or higher also provide broad-spectrum protection.” Thankfully, they’ve proposed new sunscreen product label requirements, too, including revised formats for SPF, broad-spectrum and water resistance statements. Why? You guessed it—to make product labels easier for consumers to understand.
In the meantime, since making educated decisions when it comes to choosing the right sunblock is more important than ever, here’s how you can stay informed. Keep reading for some important terms you need to know before picking up your next bottle of the stuff, whether it’s for daily use or for when you’re hitting your neighborhood beach, pool, or BBQ.
SPF and Broad-Spectrum (FDA Regulated)
The most commonly known term when it comes to sunscreen has got to be “SPF,” which stands for “sunburn protection factor.” Essentially, what SPF measures is how well a particular sunscreen can protect you from sunburn. What about the number that follows it, though? The American Academy of Dermatology tells us that this number refers to just how much UV-B light—or burning rays—it can filter out.
Even just 8 years ago, emphasis on broad-spectrum protection was nonexistent. Since 2011, the FDA announced new regulations detailing the need for sunscreen labels to highlight protection against both UV-A (ultraviolet A, or aging) and UV-B (ultraviolet B, or burning) rays. Also known as broad-spectrum protection, this important term, along with SPF, originated from these still relatively new FDA-created standards.
Today, “SPF”, “broad-spectrum”, “active ingredients”, and “water-resistant” are the only terms on the market that are FDA regulated. Those who wish to be informed consumers should bear in mind that everything else you read on a sunscreen label is printed at the discretion of the manufacturer. You should also know that dermatologists recommend using sunscreen with an SPF count of 30 or higher.
Active Ingredients: Physical Versus Chemical (FDA Regulated)
Wondering what kind of sunscreen a dermatologist would recommend? “It’s always better to use a physical-blocking sunscreen,” says board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD, FAAD (Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology). “The reason why is those work right away. You don’t have to apply them 15 to 30 minutes prior to going out. Chemical sunscreens need some time to kick in. Mineral (or physical) sunscreens are also better in that they protect against a broader spectrum of rays—infrared, blue light from screens, and also just a broader spectrum of UV-A, which are your aging rays, and UV-B, which are your burning rays.”
There are two types of active ingredients within sunscreen: Physical, also called mineral, and chemical. Physical ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, don’t absorb into the skin, instead staying on top of it and actively working to deflect those harmful UV rays as a protective, or physical barrier (hence the name). This is why your skin can look, well, a little pasty when applying zinc at the beach. But it also happens to be the only ingredient in sunscreen that can protect against both UV-B and UV-A rays. There’s that “broad-spectrum” protection again!
On the other hand, chemical ingredients—like oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone and benzophenone—work by absorbing UV rays, in turn keeping them from penetrating as deeply into skin.
With so many different kinds of sunscreen on the market—spray, wax sticks, creams, gels, and more—it can feel overwhelming to choose the right one. “First and foremost, I want people to use sunscreen,” says Dr. Campbell. “I don’t care what vehicle it comes in, as long as they’re going to use it. But my preference is a cream. It takes about a shot glass full of sunscreen to cover the entire body. You’ll need to reapply every 2 hours; additionally, even if the label says ‘water-resistant,’ you have to reapply if you sweat or swim.”
Water-Resistant (FDA Regulated) versus Sport
Swimmers, beachgoers, and outdoor workout aficionados alike should bear in mind that no sunscreen is waterproof. Yes, you read that right: There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen! And, to bust yet another sunscreen myth, the term “water-resistant” doesn’t exactly mean what you think it means. In fact, FDA guidelines state that “water resistance claims, for 40 or 80 minutes, tell how much time you can expect to get the labeled SPF-level of protection while swimming or sweating.” Again, after that, you’ll need to reapply.
The FDA regulates “water-resistant” sunscreens via this simple but effective test: By having the subject apply, and then alternate between getting wet and drying off several times, in order to test whether or not the sunscreen remains on and effective.
On the other hand, the term “sport” is not FDA regulated. So if you know you’ll be engaging in sweaty outdoor activities, water-resistant sunblock is actually your best bet. According to Dr. Campbell, a manufacturer’s choice to include “sport” on the label is purely a branding move. “Unfortunately, in the skincare world, for the most part things aren’t regulated by the FDA. Sunscreen is its own unique thing, where the FDA is more involved,” she points out.
Natural or Nontoxic
This is a big one: Not only is this term not FDA regulated, but there are also no legal standards for “natural,” when it comes to sunscreen or other types of skincare.
Typically, if you’re buying nontoxic or natural sunscreen due to having sensitive skin, buying a mineral-based sunscreen is your best bet. “That’s how you stay safe. A lot of the sunscreens that say for sensitive skin—those tend to be mineral-based. Contact allergies that cause rashes, itching or redness tend to be to chemical-based sunscreens,” says Dr. Campbell.
Reef-Friendly or Reef-Safe
If you plan on hitting the beach this summer, it’s a good idea to purchase and use a sunscreen that is reef-friendly (also called “reef-safe”). Possibly the buzziest sunscreen term on this list, for the most part, “reef-friendly” means a sunscreen that does not contain chemical protectants. So yes, if you have been following along, that means you’ll want to choose one in which the active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
A 2016 study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that “an estimated 25 to 60 million bottles worth of sunscreen chemicals wash off into coral reef areas each year,” which in turn can cause coral bleaching. Other studies show that one of the main ingredients in chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone, is toxic and can even be fatally damaging to the health of coral reefs.
That said, this is where awareness is especially important when it comes to using reef-safe products: Many sunscreens contain a combination of both mineral and chemical ingredients. Now that you’re in the know, always be sure to check the label!
Finally, it’s a good idea to schedule regular examinations with your dermatologist as a preventative measure against skin cancer—regardless of whether or not you’ve noticed any new, odd or changing moles.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.