What to Look for on SPF Labels

What to Look for on SPF Labels

Ah…the smells of summer. Fresh cut grass on the baseball diamond, salty ocean air, food on the grill and the pleasing aroma of sunscreen.

We all know we should wear sunscreen, but the large displays and overwhelming amount of choices can be really confusing. “Should I wear SPF 50?” “Does SPF really matter?” “What does SPF actually mean?”

“The most important thing for people to remember is that not all sunscreen brands are equal,” says Susan Melvin, DO, Chief Medical Officer, Long Beach Medical Center. “Sunscreen is essential for summer safety and understanding it will help you pick the right kind for you.”


Sunscreens are products with ingredients that help prevent the sun’s UV radiation from reaching the skin. UVA and UVB rays damage the sign, age it and increase your risk for skin cancer. UVB rays are the main ones that cause sunburn and UVA rays are associated with skin aging.


Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB rays from damaging the skin. SPF works like this: if it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 should prevent reddening 15 times longer – about five hours.

Choosing the Best Sunscreen

There is not one sunscreen that works for everyone. Everyone has different needs when selecting a sunscreen. When you buy a bottle, be sure to think about:

  1. How much sun exposure you are anticipating.
    • In all cases, dermatologists recommend a broad-spectrum sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection.
  2. What kind of activities you will participating in.
    • If you work outside or spend time outdoors, you will want a strong, water resistant sunscreen.
    • For swimming activities, definitely use water resistant.
  3. How sensitive your skin is.
    • With more sensitive skin, a higher SPF is recommended.
    • Sunscreens with SPF values higher than 50 have not been proven to provide additional protection compared to products with just 50.
    • Most dermatologists recommend an SPF of 30 or above.

Proper Way to Apply Sunscreen

It is important to wear sunscreen all the time, but especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the UV rays are strongest. To ensure you are putting on sunscreen properly, follow these rules:

  • Apply 1 oz. of sunscreen – about a shot glass full – to your body. Even parts not directly in the sun, should be covered.
  • Sunscreen should be applied about 30 minutes before going outside.
  • You should reapply every two hours.
  • Sunscreen should be reapplied after swimming, drying off with a towel or sweating heavily to continue protecting your skin.

New FDA Label Regulations

To help ease the anxiety of choosing the right sunscreen, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has new requirements for sunscreen labels. Sunscreen manufacturers are now required to:

  1. Only label as “broad spectrum” if tested correctly.
    • “Broad spectrum” means that they protect against both UVB and UVA rays.
  2. Provide a warning with low SPF numbers.
    • They must include a warning about skin cancer and skin aging.
  3. Specify water resistance.
    • No sunscreen is “waterproof” or “sweatproof” and manufactures cannot use these terms.
    • If it is “water resistant,” they must label for how long.
  4. Not use the term “sunblock.”
    • They also cannot claim “instant protecting” or “more than 2 hours of protection without reapplying.”

Additional Sun Protection

Sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. There are additional steps you can take for more sun protection.

  • Cover up when you’re in the sun with protective clothing.
  • Hats help protect your face, ears and neck from getting sunlight exposure.
  • Sunglasses help protect your eyes from sun exposure.
  • Get a skin cancer screening.

Understanding sunscreen and knowing how to read labels will help you keep your skin protected all summer long.

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