How to Read a Sunscreen Label

How to Read a Sunscreen Label

In the past, sunscreen was solely meant to protect against the sun’s harmful rays, but today, technological advancements have caused sunscreens to now protect against skin cancer, premature skin aging, wrinkles, and painful sunburns. And while it’s great to have so many options available, it can become quite overwhelming, and even daunting, to choose the best one that meets your dermatologic needs.

Not only are the multiple options overwhelming, but the terminology and abbreviations are quite confusing to most people when reading sunscreen labels. In fact, a study by JAMA Dermatology revealed that less than half of patients who visit dermatology clinics know what common sunscreen terms like “SPF” or “Broad Spectrum,” mean. Those two terms, in particular, are commonly found on sunscreen products and have very specific meanings because they were derived from standards by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Being able to decode and understand these terms is going to be the key to helping you become an informed shopper and find the right sunscreen to give your skin the best protection. If you don’t understand the labeling standards of sunscreen, here’s everything you need to know.

Sunscreen 101: How Do Sunscreens Work?

Before we get into the actual reading of the label, it’s important to do a breakdown of the purpose of sunscreen and how they work. If you already know how sunscreen works, then this will be a refresher for you.

Sunscreen is a topically applied product designed to protect skin from the sun’s harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays (UVA and UVB) and HEV (high energy violet) or blue light rays.

Difference between UVA UVB and Blue Light Rays

  • Blue Light rays (longwave rays) penetrate deeper into the skin than UVA and UVB rays. They are emitted from the sun as well as from our digital devices.
  • UVA rays (longwave rays) have a deeper penetration into the skin which are contributors to DNA damage and skin cancer. But the most known damage that UVA rays cause is premature skin aging and wrinkles.
  • UVB rays (shortwave rays) are what are considered the burning rays because they have more energy than UVA rays. It’s these rays that cause direct damage to your DNA and are also the direct causes of skin cancer and painful sunburns. Think of the “B” for burning.

The way sunscreens work is by their active ingredients. Once sunscreen is applied, these active ingredients stay on the surface of your skin protecting it by absorbing or reflecting the sun’s rays before it penetrates the skin. Think of sunscreen as a filtration system for the sun’s rays, protecting you from its damaging effects like skin cancer, sunburns, premature skin aging, and wrinkles.

Now that you know how sunscreens work and the difference between the UV rays, let’s dig a little deeper into the sunscreen label and understanding it.

Reading the Sunscreen Label

In reading your sunscreen label, it’s important you first and foremost know that the FDA regulates sunscreen labels, meaning that only sunscreen products labeled as “Broad Spectrum” and has an SPF of 15 or higher have been shown to reduce the risk of sunburn, skin cancer, and early aging. Anything not labeled as “Broad Spectrum” or that has an SPF below 15, has only been shown to prevent sunburns.

Breaking Down Key Terms

As you decipher a sunscreen label, here are some terms to know and understand so you’ll know the type of protection you’re getting, according to the FDA.

SPF (Sun Protection Factor)

SPF is how well a sunscreen protects your skin from sunburns. The SPF of a sunscreen is determined by clinical testing and is represented by numbers, that’s why you usually see a number after SPF, and that number is telling you how much UVB light the sunscreen will filtrate. Remember to think of the “B” in UVB as the “burning” of the skin from the sun.

An SPF of 15 filters 93% of harmful UVB rays

An SPF of 30 filters 97% of harmful UVB rays

An SPF of 50 filters 98% of harmful UVB rays

Obviously, the higher the SPF, the more protection your skin will have against UVB rays. But it’s also important to note that sunscreen isn’t a 100% solution to sun protection. You want to wear wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and lightweight pants and long-sleeved tops for additional sun protection.

Broad Spectrum

This term means that the sunscreen product has been tested and proven to protect skin against both harmful UVA and UVB rays.


Water-resistant sunscreen is how long sunscreen will last when your skin is wet. The standard time frames are 40 minutes and 80 minutes. (My Day Screen® outdoor products protect up to 80 minutes after water exposure.) Whether you have water-resistant sunscreen of 40 minutes or 80 minutes, you will need to reapply sunscreen after the given time frame has been reached.

Active Ingredients

The “Active Ingredients” on a sunscreen label are the actual UV filtering components that help prevent the UV rays from penetrating your skin. There are currently many active ingredients that aid in sun protection, but they can be broken down into two separate types: Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens.

  • Mineral Sunscreen: The active ingredients (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) lay on top of your skin and reflect UV rays away from the skin in a mirror-like fashion.
  • Chemical Sunscreen: The active ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and more) form a thin layer on top of your skin and absorb UV rays before they can penetrate into the skin.

Both types of active ingredients are great for sun protection, but because the mineral sunscreen lays on the surface of your skin and reflects UV rays, it’s a safer option, especially if you have sensitive skin. The FDA has indicated that mineral sunscreen active ingredients are safe. They are still investigating chemical active ingredients for safety.

The My Day Screen® Difference

Reading sunscreen labels can be quite confusing, making it hard to determine which product is right for you. But the confusion ends today. Not only are our sunscreen products mineral-based but they’re also PAMP-Friendly, meaning there’s no harm to people, animals, or marine life, and they’re planet-friendly.

Based on personal experiences, at My Day Screen®, we know the importance of protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Our products are lightweight, soft, and non-sticky or filmy, and our packaging is sustainable!

With our products, by taking the time out to understand what’s on a sunscreen label, you’re not only saving your skin but you’re also helping save our planet as well. Sign up today to be a My Day Screen® Insider and receive fun information, product promotions, and a 10% discount on your first product purchase!