How to Read Your Sunscreen Ingredient Label: A Guide

Updated 06/18/19
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Here's a sobering fact: basal cell carcinoma is the number-one type of cancer in the United States right now. With summer in full swing, it’s more important than ever to have sun safety top of mind. We’ve got you covered when it comes to all things sun and skin here at Byrdie HQ, whether you’re curious about the best SPF products on the market or what it’s really like to get a skin check

Whether scrolling online or scanning the drugstore aisle, there’s no question that choosing between sunscreens can be a dizzying ordeal. For starters, there’s the chemical-versus-mineral debate; determining the correct SPF for your needs; and ensuring that the lotion’s quality matches its price point. Luckily, there’s an easy way to streamline the sunscreen selection process: mastering the label.

To help you add to cart with confidence, we enlisted a panel of licensed dermatologists to help us unpack 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 ultimate breakdown for how to shop for sunscreen.

First Things First: Check the SPF

Let’s start with the basics: SPF stands for sun protection factor. A formula’s SPF “gives you the interval time frame in which the sunscreen will prevent you from developing a burn from UVB light,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rita Linkner of Spring Street Dermatology. Translation? Generally speaking, the higher the SPF, the longer you can wait before reapplying. SPF varies by product, ranging from about 15 to over 100—but a higher number doesn’t always mean better protection. Linkner recommends a 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.” Even if a higher SPF might hypothetically work better, she adds, that number comes with its own downside: “As SPF levels increase beyond 50, the formulations tend to be thicker and leave a chalkier appearance, and most people will under-compensate that white chalkiness by not utilizing the right amount of sunscreen with each application.”

Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Lotion WetForce Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50+ $40
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Opt For Broad Spectrum

To best protect your skin, you need protection against two types of ray. “UVB rays damage the skin’s upper surface and are the main cause of sunburn,” explains Dr. Fayne Frey, while “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.” To safeguard your skin, opt for labels that advertise broad spectrum protection, which fights both UVA and UVB light. Another way to put it, as Linkner says, is that “UVA is responsible for aging the skin. UVB light is responsible for burning the skin. Broad spectrum refers to a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB light.” 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.

Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield SPF 50 (PA+++) $39
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Know the Facts: Chemical versus Mineral

Chemical and mineral sunscreens both work, albeit in different ways. Simply put, chemical sunscreens rely on ingredients that cause chemical reactions to absorb UV rays and release them from the skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use inorganic compounds, which sit on top of the skin to deflect and scatter rays. Specifically, Frey says, “The term ‘mineral’ usually refers to the use of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both as the sunscreen filters in the formulation.” Most drugstore or big brand sunscreens are chemical-based, but more and more brands are offering mineral alternatives, especially as potentially unsafe and environmentally hazardous ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate lead to greater restrictions on chemical usage.

Mineral sunscreens might also be easier on your skin, says Linkner: “Mineral or natural sunscreens are less irritating than chemical ones. If you have sensitive skin, look for formulations that contain physical blockers.” For foolproof protection, Dr. Kristina Goldenberg of Goldenberg Dermatology in NYC suggests opting for formulas that combine the benefits of chemical and mineral protectants. Goldenberg says, “I recommend sunscreen with high SPF, water resistant for outdoor activity, with a physical blocker, like zinc or titanium oxide, and chemical blocker, like avobenzone.”

While mineral and chemical are both useful terms, Frey warns against trusting labels that advertise sunscreens as “natural.” She elaborates, “The term ‘natural’ implies where the ingredients come from, a plant flower, oil or root, but says nothing about the safety of the product or ingredient.”

Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36 $55
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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. She adds, however, that “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.” So while a sunscreen advertised as water-resistant may be a better choice for swimming, you still need to regularly reapply.

Coola Organic SPF 30 Sunscreen Spray $36
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"Dermatologist Tested" versus "Dermatologist Recommended"

These two terms may seem interchangeable, but there is a 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 manufactures do test their products on a small number of individuals, these phrases are best used for their marketing value.”

"Face" versus "Body" Sunscreen

“Sunscreens for 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. 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. To avoid irritation, avoid sunscreens that integrate insect repellent. Sunscreen should be applied frequently, every two hours, whereas insect repellent is used much more sparingly than that. Frey says, “Like in all skincare products, consumers should look for ingredients that they may be allergic to, ingredients that may cause breakouts, if they are predisposed to acne, 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 recently 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.” If researching the efficacy of each potential purchase seems daunting, fear not: we’ve done our homework, and we’ve compiled the year’s best sunscreens for you.

Next, the 18 most innovative SPF products you need to know about.

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