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How to read a sunscreen label like a dermatology provider

What to look for when choosing a sunscreen, according to the experts.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Oct 6, 2023 • 11 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
Woman Applying Sunscreen on Face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Oct 6, 2023 • 11 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

You care for your skin. So you wear sunscreen daily. But how do you know if you’ve chosen the right sunscreen for your skin?

We’re here to help! We know that the labels on skincare products can be confusing, and sunscreen is no exception. So, here, our dermatology providers will explain what you need to know about concepts like SPF, active ingredients, and what “water resistant”means. And while we’re at it, we’ll run through some reminders on how to choose an effective sunscreen!

What matters on a sunscreen label

The labels on sunscreen bottles have a lot of details—some important, others trivial. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, regulates the information that matters:¹

  • The sun protection factor (or SPF) rating of the sunscreen.

  • Whether the label says, “broad spectrum.”

  • If the sunscreen bottle contains the words “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant.”

  • The active ingredients in the sunscreen.²

This information may be subject to change because the FDA recently submitted a proposal to update its sunscreen label requirements.³ Nonetheless, these are the keys to look for when buying sunscreen.

How sunscreen can protect your skin

There are two types of harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun:⁴

  1. Ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays are associated with signs of premature aging (such as fine lines)

  2. Ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays are associated with burning your skin.

Both can lead to cell damage and increase the risk of skin cancer. To help protect your skin from these rays, consider both the SPF and whether the sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection.

The sun protection factor (SPF)

SPF means, “sun protection factor.” Basically, it shows the amount of UVB rays that could burn skin protected by that sunscreen.⁵

For example, skin protected by a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 versus 15 would need twice as much UV ray exposure to burn. To put this another way, someone wearing a high-SPF sunscreen could still burn their skin if they’re exposed to enough UV rays.

To get the level of protection shown on a sunscreen label, you need to properly apply enough sunscreen to your skin. The exact amount of sunscreen used for SPF determination is two milligrams of sunscreen for every square centimeter of skin.⁶ Fortunately, you don’t need to measure anything out. Just use the two-finger rule.

Also, keep in mind that SPF doesn’t apply to ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays. SPF is based on precise measurements and there currently isn’t a generally-accepted way to measure the UVA rays that get through the sunscreen.⁷ However, there is a way to measure whether sunscreen can help to block UVA rays—a term referred to as, “broad spectrum.”

Broad spectrum

When you see “broad spectrum” on a sunscreen label, that means that it provides your skin with UVA and UVB protection.⁸ However, there isn't a number like SPF to rate your protection from UVA rays.⁹

In other words, use the information on a sunscreen label, but remember that no sunscreen keeps you completely safe from UV rays. 

Water resistance

Terms like “waterproof” and “sweatproof” have been on sunscreen labels in the past. However, in 2011 the FDA stated that it is impossible for a sunscreen to be completely waterproof and banned these terms on labels.¹⁰

You may see a label with the term, “water-resistant.” It means that the sunscreen will still provide the protection level stated by the SPF after you have been in the water for 40 minutes.¹¹

If you see “very water-resistant,” that means you can be in the water for 80 minutes before you need to reapply sunscreen.¹² Researchers performed these tests of water-resistant sunscreen without using a towel on the tested area.¹³ That is why the FDA recommends reapplying sunscreen based on the following:¹⁴

  • After you have been in the water for 40 minutes while wearing “water-resistant” sunscreen.

  • After you have been in the water for 80 minutes while wearing “very water-resistant” sunscreen.

  • After you have dried off with a towel.

  • At least every two hours overall.

The water resistance and sun protection provided by sunscreens are due to their active ingredients, which we’ll cover next.

Active ingredients

Active ingredients in sunscreen are those that help to block the sun’s rays.¹⁵ You can find them in the “drug facts” area under two different categories: chemical ingredients and physical ingredients.

Chemical ingredients

Chemical sunscreen ingredients contain molecules that absorb the sun’s UV rays.¹⁶ Some of the many chemical ingredients you may see on a sunscreen label include avobenzone, homosalate, and octocrylene.¹⁷

Physical ingredients

Physical sunscreen ingredients work like a shield to physically block UV rays.¹⁸ One common physical ingredient is zinc oxide.¹⁹ You may especially find it in broad-spectrum sunscreens because it helps to protect your skin against UVA rays and to a lesser degree UVB rays.²⁰

Another common physical ingredient is titanium dioxide, which helps protect your skin against UVB rays and some UVA rays.²¹ While both chemical and physical ingredients help to protect your skin, some people may wonder if any of them could be harmful.

Are any ingredients potentially harmful?

The FDA actively tracks sunscreen ingredients to protect you. For example, the FDA created a list of finalized recommendations for allowed sunscreen ingredients in September 2021.²²

Currently, both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide meet the high standards to be classified as “generally recognized as safe” (or GRASE).²³ The FDA is collecting information about other ingredients as part of the process to potentially approve them as GRASE as well.²⁴

So, don’t worry: If the FDA ever found credible evidence that an ingredient was not safe, companies wouldn’t be allowed to use it.²⁵

Other information on a sunscreen label

  1. ”Baby” or “safe for children”: The FDA doesn’t regulate these terms.²⁶ In other words, the manufacturer decides what they mean.

  2. “Reef safe”: Some evidence suggests that two skincare ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate, may harm coral in the ocean.²⁷ As a result, some companies label sunscreens without those two ingredients as “reef safe.”²⁸ However, the effect of these ingredients on coral is currently not proven.²⁹

  3. “Sensitive skin” or “hypoallergenic”: This term isn’t regulated by the FDA, so it can mean anything that the product’s marketing team believes is reasonable.³⁰

  4. The Skin Cancer Foundation seal of approval: The Skin Cancer Foundation allows its seal of approval that says, “daily use” on the label of a sunscreen that meets a handful of requirements.³¹ For example, the sunscreen needs an SPF of at least 15 and it must pass tests for skin irritation on at least 20 people.³² Also, the seal of approval that says, “active” can go on a sunscreen that meets the requirements for the first level and has an SPF of at least 30.³³

  5. “Sport”: The FDA doesn’t regulate this term, so it doesn’t mean anything specific.³⁴ Companies may put it on water-resistant sunscreen to indicate that sweat is less likely to rinse it off.³⁵

Protect your skin with dermatologist-designed products

Now that you know how to read sunscreen labels, you may wonder where to find the best sunscreen for you and your household. Fortunately, Curology has a sunscreen that not only helps to protect you from the sun but is formulated for acne-prone skin (although it works for any skin type). 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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In addition to sunscreen, we offer solutions for skin conditions like acne, rosacea, fine lines, and dark spots. Our personalized formulas can take the guesswork out of skincare so you can focus on enjoying your time in the sun. Click here to find out more!

FAQs

What should you look for on a sunscreen label?

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends people use a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection, is water-resistant, and has an SPF of at least 30.³⁶

How do I know if my sunscreen is FDA approved?

The FDA requires sunscreen companies to meet research-based standards to use an SPF rating and terms like “broad spectrum” and “water-resistant.”³⁷ The FDA also regulates the active ingredients used in sunscreens.³⁸

What SPF number is safe?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of at least 30.³⁹ However, no sunscreen will keep you completely safe from UV rays.⁴⁰ So it’s generally a good idea to take other sun protection measures. These include the following examples:⁴¹

  • Wear protective clothing.

  • Only be outside for a moderate period of time.

  • Try to avoid being outside during the late morning and early afternoon.

  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.

• • •

P.S. We did our homework so you don’t have to:

  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and Answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S. (2011, June 23). 

  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA advances new proposed regulation to make sure that sunscreens are safe and effective. (2019, February 21).

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. An update on sunscreen requirements: The deemed final order and the proposed order. (2022, December 16).

  4. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. (2023, February 17). 

  5. Wilson, B.D., et al. Comprehensive Review of Ultraviolet Radiation and the Current Status on Sunscreens. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (September 2012).

  6. Wilson, B.D., et al. Comprehensive review of ultraviolet radiation and the current status on sunscreens. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  7. Wilson, B.D., et al. Comprehensive review of ultraviolet radiation and the current status on sunscreens. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  8. Guan, L.L., et al. Sunscreens and Photoaging: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Clinical Dermatology. (2021, August 13).

  9. Coelho, S.G., et al. Suboptimal UVA attenuation by broad spectrum sunscreens under outdoor solar conditions contributes to lifetime UVA burden. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. (2019, September 16).

  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S. Ibid.

  11. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. (2023, January 17).

  12. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Ibid.

  13. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Ibid.

  14. Wang, S.Q. and Lim, H.W. Current status of the sunscreen regulation in the United States: 2011 Food and Drug Administration’s final rule on labeling and effectiveness testing. J Am Acad Dermatol. (October 2011).

  15. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  16. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  17. Latha, M.S., et al. Sunscreening Agents. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. (January 2013).

  18. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  19. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens And Photoprotection. StatPearls. (2023, March 7).

  20. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens And Photoprotection. StatPearls. Ibid.

  21. Gabros, S., et al. Sunscreens And Photoprotection. StatPearls. Ibid.

  22. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Proposed order (otc000008): Amending over-the-counter (OTC) monograph M020: sunscreen drug products for OTC human use. (2021, September 24).

  23. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers: FDA posts deemed final order and proposed order for over-the-counter sunscreen. (2022, December 16).

  24. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers: FDA posts deemed final order and proposed order for over-the-counter sunscreen. Ibid.

  25. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers: FDA posts deemed final order and proposed order for over-the-counter sunscreen. Ibid.

  26. Voller, L.M. and Polcari, I.C. Public misperceptions of common sunscreen labeling claims: a survey study from the Minnesota State Fair. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2019, December 26).

  27. Miller, I.B., et al. Toxic effects of UV filters from sunscreens on coral reefs revisited: regulatory aspects for “reef safe” products. Environmental Sciences Europe. (2021, June 26).

  28. Miller, I.B., et al. Toxic effects of UV filters from sunscreens on coral reefs revisited: regulatory aspects for “reef safe” products. Environmental Sciences Europe. Ibid.

  29. Miller, I.B., et al. Toxic effects of UV filters from sunscreens on coral reefs revisited: regulatory aspects for “reef safe” products. Environmental Sciences Europe. Ibid.

  30. Toklu, H.Z., et al. Cosmetovigilance: A review of the current literature. J Family Med Prim Care. (May 2019). 

  31. Skin Cancer Foundation. Seal of Recommendation. (n.d.).

  32. Skin Cancer Foundation. Seal of Recommendation. Ibid.

  33. Skin Cancer Foundation. Seal of Recommendation. Ibid.

  34.  American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to decode sunscreen labels. (n.d.).

  35.  American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to decode sunscreen labels. Ibid.

  36.  American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

  37.  U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers: FDA announces new requirements for over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreen products marketed in the U.S. Ibid.

  38.  U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Questions and answers: FDA posts deemed final order and proposed order for over-the-counter sunscreen. Ibid.

  39.  American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid. 

  40.  Wilson, B.D., et al. Comprehensive review of ultraviolet radiation and the current status on sunscreens. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. Ibid.

  41. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs. Ibid.

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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