What to Look for on a Sunscreen Label—From Ingredients to Protection Level

close up of sunscreen on woman's shoulder


We don't have to tell you twice that sun safety should always be top of mind, and that keeping up with the best SPF products on the market or getting a skin check is always a good idea. But other than protection from UVA and UVB rays, what do you actually know about sunscreen?

For starters, there’s the chemical-versus-mineral debate, determining the best SPF for your needs, and ensuring that there are quality ingredients inside. Luckily, it's all on the label. We spoke to dermatologists to educate us on sunscreen labels, including the inactive ingredients, environmental concerns, and that nebulous PA+ number, so you can spend less time debating between brands, and more time actually enjoying the sun. Keep scrolling for the breakdown of how to read the ingredient label and shop for the best sunscreen for you.

Check the SPF Level

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a daily SPF of 30 or higher, but dermatologists often recommend higher levels to leave room for error. Board-certified dermatologist Rita Linkner, MD, of Spring Street Dermatology, recommends an SPF level “at or around SPF 50, as that's the magical number where you are maximizing your UVB protection while using a formulation that is easy enough to rub in and will promote you to use the right quantity of sunscreen.”

According to the FDA, SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, is a measure of how much solar energy is required to produce sunburn on protected skin (with sunscreen) relative to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin (without sunscreen). "As the SPF value increases, sunburn protection increases," the FDA's website reads.

Still, it's important to note that there are many sunscreens over SPF 50 with easy-to-use formulations, like La Roche Posay's Anthelios Light Fluid Sunscreen ($33), which is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and rubs in smoothly without a chalky or white residue. And remember: To reach the SPF level listed on the bottle, you need to use about 1/4 teaspoon for your face and neck, and about a shot glass amount for your body.

Opt For Broad-Spectrum

To safeguard your skin, opt for sunscreen labels that advertise broad-spectrum protection, which blocks both UVA and UVB light. “UVB rays damage the skin’s upper surface and are the main cause of sunburn,” explains Fayne Frey, MD, a board-certified clinical and surgical dermatologist practicing in West Nyack, New York. “UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and primarily cause the signs of skin aging, wrinkling, pigmentation, and sagging. Both UVA and UVB rays cause skin cancer.”

You might also notice one or more + signs next to your SPF grade—that’s a PA+ rating, a system used in Asian countries to indicate a product’s UVA protection factor. The more plus signs, the better the protection against UVA.

SPF 101 Glossary Chart of Terms Related to Sunscreen


Chemical vs. Mineral

When it comes to comparing chemical and mineral—also called "physical"—sunscreens, the short answer is that both function in different ways to protect you from skin cancer and sun damage.

Mineral Sunscreens

  • Work by physically block the sun's rays with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide
  • Better-suited for sensitive skin
  • Mineral formulas may leave a white cast

Mineral sunscreens work by physically blocking the suns rays as they touch your skin, and feature one of two active ingredients: zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. “The term ‘mineral’ usually refers to the use of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as the sunscreen filters in the formulation," says Frey. “Mineral or natural sunscreens are less irritating than chemical one," adds Linker. "If you have sensitive skin, look for formulations that contain physical blockers."

Chemical Sunscreens

  • Work by using chemical filters that absorb the sun's rays
  • Typically clear in color and lightweight in texture, making them more pleasant to wear
  • Often demonized online due to recent recalls, but chemical sunscreens are considered safe to use by dermatologists.

Meanwhile, chemical sunscreens work by using chemical filters such as oxybenzone and homosalate to absorb the sun's rays as they touch your skin. Chemical sunscreens are typically clear in color and have more texture innovations—such as sprays and gels—that make them easier to apply and more enjoyable to wear than mineral sunscreens. However, some choose not to use chemical sunscreens due to recent benzene-related recalls and potential coral reef-damaging properties (which are unproven to date).

The best sunscreen is the one you will actually wear every day. Whether it's chemical or mineral, make sure you're using SPF 30+ every single day to protect your skin.

Decode "Water-Resistant" Labels

“Water resistant (or sweat-resistant) indicates whether a sunscreen can provide adequate protection for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when a person is swimming or sweating,” says Frey. But "resistant” doesn’t mean full protection. “Since no sunscreen is fully ‘waterproof’ or ‘sweat-proof,’ the FDA does not allow these terms on sunscreen labels,” says Frey. So while a sunscreen advertised as water-resistant may be a better choice for swimming, you still need to regularly reapply.

"Derm-Tested" vs. "Derm-Recommended"

These two terms may seem interchangeable, but there is a key difference in their meanings, explains Goldenberg. “Some companies ask dermatologists to test the qualities of the products—that's dermatologist-tested,” she says, “while other companies ask dermatologists to try a product and say whether or not they'd recommend the product to the patient—that's dermatologist-recommended.”

When it comes down to it, though, says Frey, these terms should be taken with a grain of salt: “There is no federal guideline or industry standard that determines the use of these phrases. Although some manufacturers do test their products on a small number of individuals, these phrases are best used for their marketing value.”

"Face" vs. "Body" Sunscreen

Sunscreens for the face are formulated differently [so as] not to clog pores and cause acne breakouts,” says Goldenberg. “They typically have less zinc oxide because that’s what gives us that pasty look that everyone tries to avoid. So, facial sunscreens oftentimes have a combination of zinc oxide with a chemical blocker.” Another bonus of facial formulas? They’re designed to work with makeup and other skincare products. Goldenberg explains, “Facial sunscreens are also easier to use with makeup and other skincare products (i.e. more spreadability),” while “sunscreens for the body tend to be thicker and are often better for parts of the body where sweating is an issue."

Don’t Ignore Inactive Ingredients

Inactive doesn’t mean unimportant. “When looking for a sunscreen, choose products that are paraben-free, oil-free, and fragrance-free,” advises Linkner.

Frey adds, “Like in all skincare products, consumers should look for ingredients that they may be allergic to, ingredients that may cause breakouts, ingredients that may exacerbate eczema in predisposed individuals or those with sensitive skin, and fragrance, the most common cause of skin allergic reactions.” (Frey’s website has a handy Product Selector tool that allows users to find skincare products devoid of ingredients that may exacerbate conditions like acne, eczema, and more).

Trust the Research

Of course, the information on the label doesn’t mean much if it isn’t accurate. When Consumer Reports tested an array of sunscreen products for label accuracy, the results were concerning: “Of the 82 lotions, sprays, sticks, and lip balms in [CR’s] ratings this year, 32 tested at less than half their labeled SPF number.” To avoid unexpected burns due to poor quality products, Frey advises, “I recommend purchasing sunscreens from reputable international and nationally recognized brands. They have the resources to produce affordable, effective, safe, and available sunscreens.”

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Research C for DE and. Sun protection factor(Spf). FDA. Published online November 3, 2018.

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