How to Decode Sunscreen Labels

June 27, 2017
Jessica Khorsandi
By: Jessica Khorsandi | by L'Oréal
How to Decode Sunscreen Labels

We hate to break it to you, but it’s not enough to pick up any ol’ sunscreen off the drugstore shelf and slather it onto your skin. In order to ensure that you’re picking the right formula for your skin type and needs (and applying it the right way!), you’ll have to read each individual product label first. That’s all fine and dandy, until you realize that you have zero clue what the fancy-sounding terms plastered on the label even mean. Tell the truth: Do you know the official meaning of phrases like “Broad Spectrum” and “SPF”? How about "water-resistant" and "sport"? If the answer is yes, kudos to you! Keep on keeping on. If the answer is no, you’ll want to read this. Below, we’re sharing a crash course in decoding sunscreen labels. And that’s not all! Just in time for summer, we’re also sharing best practices for choosing a sunscreen that can give your skin the protection it deserves and—quite frankly—needs.


When a sunscreen label says the words “Broad Spectrum,” it means the formula can help protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays. As a refresher, UVA rays can contribute to the premature signs of visible skin aging like noticeable wrinkles and age spots. UVB rays, on the other hand, are primarily responsible for sunburn and other skin damage. When a sunscreen offers Broad Spectrum protection, it can help protect against visible signs of early skin aging, sunburn, and skin cancer alike when used with other sun protection measures. (Psst—This is really good!).


SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor.” The number associated with SPF—be it 15 or 100—determines how much UVB light (the burning rays) a sunscreen can help filter out. For instance, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) states that SPF 15 can filter out 93% of the sun's UVB rays, while SPF 30 can filter out 97% of the sun's UVB rays.


Great question! Since sweat and water can wash away sunscreen from our skin, manufacturers have designed sunscreens that are water-resistant, which means the formula is more likely to stay on wet skin for a specific amount of time. Some products are water-resistant for up to 40 minutes in the water, and others can last up to 80 minutes in the water. Refer to the label on your sunscreen of choice for proper use instructions. If you towel-dry after swimming, for example, you’ll want to reapply your sunscreen right away since it will likely be rubbed off in the process.

Editor’s note: When using a water-resistant sunscreen, be sure to reapply the formula at least every two hours—even if your skin remains dry.


Sun protection comes in two main forms: physical and chemical sunscreen. Physical sunscreen—often formulated with active ingredients like titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide—helps to protect your skin by deflecting the sun’s rays away from the surface skin. Chemical sunscreen—often formulated with active ingredients like octocrylene or avobenzone—helps to protect your skin by absorbing UV rays. There are also some sunscreens that are categorized as both physical and chemical sunscreens depending on their formulation. 


The FDA has not defined the term “baby” for sunscreen. Generally speaking, when you see this term on a sunscreen label, it means that the sunscreen is probably formulated with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide which are less likely to irritate a baby’s sensitive skin.


Similar to “baby,” the FDA has not defined the term “sport” for sunscreen. According to Consumer Reports, “sport” and "active" products are generally sweat-resistant and/or water-resistant and less likely to irritate your eyes. When in doubt, check the label.


Hopefully now you have a better understanding of some common terms used on sunscreen labels. Before you head to the drugstore and test your newfound knowledge on the topic, there are a few additional points you should keep in mind. For starters, there is currently no sunscreen out there that can filter out 100% of the sun’s UV rays. As such, it’s important to wear protective clothing, seek shade, and avoid peak sun hours (between 10am and 4pm—when the sun’s rays are strongest) in addition to wearing sunscreen. Also, since the SPF number only takes into account UVB rays, it’s important to protect against equally harmful UVA rays. To cover all your bases, the AAD recommends reaching for a Broad Spectrum SPF 30 or higher that is also water resistant. Generally, a good application of sunscreen is about one ounce—enough to fill up a shot glass—to cover exposed parts of the body. This number can fluctuate depending on your size. Lastly, reapply the same amount of sunscreen every two hours, or sooner if you sweat profusely or towel-dry. 

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