Protecting Young Skin: Tips For Reading A Sunscreen Label

How to Read A Sunscreen Label

With so many sunscreen products on the market, it can be a challenge to know which one is best for protecting your family’s skin. Here’s what you should look for on the product label when buying sunscreen this summer.

1. The term “broad spectrum”

The sun gives off both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Both are harmful and play a role in the formation of skin cancer. UVA rays contribute to early skin aging, while UVB rays can cause sunburn.

Broad spectrum sunscreens help shield both UVA and UVB rays.

2. An SPF of 30 or higher

A sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) tells how much of the sun’s UVB rays the sunscreen filters out. SPF 15 filters out 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 filters out 97%. SPF 50 filters 98%. No matter how high the rating, some UV rays still get through.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

3. How long the sunscreen is water resistant

Water resistant sunscreens must specify how long they are effective when swimming or sweating (either 40 or 80 minutes based on testing) before you need to reapply.

  • Sunscreens cannot claim to provide sun protection for more than 2 hours without reapplying or to provide protection immediately after applying.
  • You should no longer see the terms “waterproof” or “sweatproof” on sunscreens sold in the U.S. These claims are not allowed on sunscreen labels because all sunscreens eventually wash off.

4. The ingredient list

Two types of sunscreens are on the market in the U.S.: physical and chemical.

  • Physical sunscreens sit on top of your skin and act like a shield against the sun’s rays. Ingredients include titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both.
  • Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays. Active ingredients that have been approved by the FDA for use in the U.S. include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate.

A Note About Safety and Sunscreen

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreens and their ingredients. In early 2019, the FDA announced that it is asking for more safety data about certain chemical ingredients that are used in sunscreens. They are looking into how much of the chemicals are absorbed into the body and how they might affect the body.

The FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology continue to emphasize that sunscreens are safe, and it’s important to continue using sunscreen every time you go outdoors. If you would like to avoid the chemicals in question until more data is available, choose a physical sunscreen that uses titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both.

You’re Never Too Old for Sunscreen

Being vigilant about sun safety remains the best protection against early skin aging and skin cancer. As your kids get older, they sometimes think they’re too cool for sunscreen. It helps to hold strong to a “no sunscreen, no pool” rule. Remind them that any amount of tan on their skin is a sign of sun damage and can lead to early skin aging. Mentioning wrinkles, saggy skin and age spots often helps get reluctant tweens and teens to reach for the sunscreen bottle.

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Nick DeBlasio, MD

About the Author: Nick DeBlasio, MD

Nick DeBlasio, MD, is a pediatrician in the Division of General and Community Pediatrics. His areas of interest include medical education and primary care of underserved children. He is an attending physician at the Pediatric Primary Care Center.

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