What your sunscreen label means

May 21, 2009 by  
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sunscreen_labels-from-fda-siteThis coming Friday, May 22, is “Don’t Fry Day”, a health awareness program jointly sponsored by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention (NCSCP). The campaign is aimed to encourage sun safety awareness and help reduce increasing incidence of skin cancer.

In observance of this health campaign, this resource post brings you information on what your sunscreen labels mean.

Sunburn protection factor (SPF)

You see it on your sunscreen all the time – SPF, followed by a number. But what does SPF really mean for your sun protection?

SPF stands for sunburn protection factor. It can range from 2 to 60 and it refers to a sunscreen’s ability to block out the sun’s rays. According to the US FDA

SPF is a measure of how much solar energy (UV radiation) is required to produce sunburn on protected skin (i.e., in the presence of sunscreen) relative to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin. As the SPF value increases, sunburn protection increases.

Many people think that SPF can tell us how long we can stay in the sun without getting burned (Source: Medicine.net). As an example, if a person with unprotected skin turns after 10 minutes of sun exposure, then 10 minutes is their “initial burning time”. If that person applies a sunscreen with SPF 2, this factor is multiplied by the initial burning time, enabling the person to tolerate 20 instead of 10 minutes of sun exposure before turning red. The higher the SPF, the longer a person can stay under the sun without getting burned.

However, the US FDA warns that this is a misconception because the “initial burning time” can vary depending on the skin type, weather (clear or cloudy skies), time of the day, and geographic location.

The US FDA goes on sunbathingto explain:

Because of the various factors that impact the amount of solar radiation, SPF does not reflect time in the sun. In other words, SPF does not inform consumers about the time that can be spent in the sun without getting sunburn. Rather, SPF is a relative measure of the amount of sunburn protection provided by sunscreens. It allows consumers to compare the level of sunburn protection provided by different sunscreens. For example, consumers know that SPF 30 sunscreens provide more sunburn protection than SPF 8 sunscreens.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has come up with the so-called UV index which predicts ultraviolet radiation levels on a 1-11+ scale depending on location. This helps people to decide the amount of sun exposure they can tolerate and the kind of protection they would need. In cases when the UV index is expected to be unusually high, the EPA issues a UV alert.

The UV A stars

The labelling of sunscreens has been upgraded to include the 4-star UV A system. This aims to provide consumers information as to “how well the product protects them against “Ultraviolet A” (UVA) light.” This is in addition to the SPF. The UV A stars mean the following:

Broad spectrum protection

Some sunscreen products claim to have “broad-spectrum protection”. This means that it absorbs UV A as well as UV B radiation. According to the Mayo suntan_oilClinic:

For broad protection, chemical sunscreens often contain more than one ingredient to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. A newer over-the-counter sunscreen contains mexoryl (Anthelios SX) and offers protection against both UVA and UVB radiation. The ingredients that make a sunscreen block UV A and UV B and therefore broad spectrum are oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Water resistant

Contact with water can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreens. It is therefore important to use products which are labelled “water resistant”.

Misleading labels

Sunscreens used to carry labels which have since been declared unacceptable and unallowable by health authorities because they can be misleading. This includes “waterproof” (no sunscreen can even be water proof), “sun block” (no sunscreen can block all rays) and “all-day” (no sunscreen can be effective all day.


sunglasses-babyIf you are of the sensitive skin type whose skin can be irritated by certain ingredients in the sunscreen, and it is best to choose your sunscreen carefully and check what’s in it. The most common sunscreen component that can cause irritation are fragrances, coloring, and preservatives.

Babies and small children have sensitive skin. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that

if the sunscreen irritates [the baby’s] skin, try a different brand or try a sunscreen stick or sunscreen or sunblock with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, talk with your child’s doctor.

Some products may claim to be “hypoallergenic” or “for sensitive skin”. It is best to consult your pharmacist before you decide which one to buy. It is also advisable to use the product first in a small skin area to check of reactions before applying all over the body.

Photo credit: stock.xchng; US FDA site

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.

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