A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently revealed only 43 percent of people surveyed knew how to decipher the details on sunscreen labels. Here, common terms and what they mean:
BROAD SPECTRUM: Means the product will protect your skin from the two types of ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer — UVA and UVB. UVB rays damage the surface layers of the skin; they cause sunburn. UVA rays penetrate more deeply and can cause signs of aging like wrinkles.
SPF: Stands for Sun Protection Factor — a measure of how long a sunscreen is supposed to protect against UVB rays before your skin begins to burn compared to how long it takes for your skin to burn without sunscreen — roughly 20 minutes. An SPF of 15 is designed to allow you to stay out in the sun 15 times longer than that — about five hours, explains Melissa Peck Piliang, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), although skin can be damaged without turning red, so if you don’t see signs of burning, don’t assume you’re safe. The AAD advises using a product with at least 30 SPF, but note that an SPF above 50 offers little extra protection.
WATER-RESISTANT OR SWEAT-RESISTANT: There’s no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. The product will wear off when you swim or sweat a lot. However, the label will tell you how long a sunscreen will remain resistant to water: often either 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
SEAL OF RECOMMENDATION: This is a directive from the Skin Cancer Foundation. There are two types:
- “Daily Use” means the sunscreen is adequate for incidental exposure that occurs throughout the day — for example, while you’re in and out of the sun doing errands. This label is often on other products that contain sunscreen, like moisturizers and make-up.
- “Active” means the sunscreen has a high SPF and meets certain water-resistant requirements. It’s also used on sunscreens for babies and sports sunscreens.
ACTIVE INGREDIENTS: There are two types of sunscreen. Physical sunscreens, such as those containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide, literally block UV rays. Chemical sunscreens absorb them before they penetrate skin. Examples are avobenzone, benzophenone, and Mexoryl SX. Some products are made up of both types of sunscreen. You’ll find the active ingredients listed under “Drug Facts.” Here are a few other fun facts about sunscreen.
The minimal amount of sunscreen to protect your entire body. An ounce of sunscreen is about the size of your palm. Experts say you should use between a quarter and a half of an 8-ounce bottle during a long day at the pool or beach.
The number of minutes you should wait after applying sunscreen to go into the sun. Reapply every two hours, says Dr. Piliang.
Percent of UV rays that can penetrate through on cloudy days and damage skin.
Missed a Spot?
Apply sunscreen to these often-overlooked areas.
- Tips of ears. The Skin Cancer Foundation says ears are often neglected, along with the neck and chest. Cover them with sunscreen and, for extra protection, wear a wide-brimmed hat.
- Eyelids. They’re one of the most common places for skin cancer to develop, according to according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. You can use a moisturizer with sunscreen on the eyelid area, which will be less irritating than sunscreen alone, but UV-blocking shades provide the best protection. They should block 99 to 100 percent of both types of UV rays.
- Scalp. This can be a vulnerable area particularly if you’re balding or have thin hair; a hat can help too.
- Lips. Your lower lip can be a hot spot. This area is 12 times more likely to develop skin cancer than your upper lip, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
- Tops of feet. Even if you’re just walking around in flip-flops you should apply sunscreen to your feet.