How to read and understand a sunscreen label in 30 seconds

Skin protection

Posted on 10/06/20

Sunscreen label confusion must be one of the biggest crimes in the cosmetics industry.

Why does it matter?

Establishing past trends is difficult given historical data capture but in countries like the UK and USA, skin cancer numbers have increased by 50% over the past decade.

At the time of writing, World Health Organisation forecasts suggest that the annual number of new skin cancer cases globally will almost double, by 2040.

Europe accounts for 40% of cases and yet only accounts for 7% of the global population.

This issue in my eyes

Somehow, a combination of government bureaucrats, scientists and the cosmetics industry have made the sunscreen label a haven for misinterpretation and confusion.

The number of things we need to pay attention to, understand and digest on a sunscreen label is unforgivable.

As skin cancer numbers rise rapidly across the world, simple communication seems like a really obvious plan of attack for addressing the problem.

The last thing consumers need is even the slightest nudge in the direction of misuse, or worse still, avoiding use altogether.

Unfortunately, manufacturers and brands cannot just go ahead and simplify the language on their labels until governments provide them with a blueprint allowing them to do so. Every brand must comply with FDA, European or other rules when it comes to cosmetics labelling. Brands are hamstrung until they are given license to help consumers by the enforcing agencies.

Social proof

To emphasise the point, the UK high-street retailer, Superdrug, carried out a survey of 2,000 consumers in 2017 to test people’s sunscreen knowledge.

Just under half of those surveyed didn’t understand what SPF meant. Ten percent of people thought the SPF number represented the length of time they could lie in the sun before burning. The most misunderstood fact was that SPF is not the be all and end all. There are other factors at play.

At first, the results startled me. I soon realised the responses replicated my own understanding up until three years ago. The survey represented a view of the majority. The majority doesn’t get it. And I am entirely sympathetic. The labelling rules for sunscreen are nonsense. Somebody needs to tear up the rule book and start again.

Until that happens, this is how to decipher a sunscreen label in 30 seconds.

Spoiler alert: If you just want the answer and want to be told what to buy, jump to the end.

Sunscreen label definitions and explanations

Things to be aware of on a sunscreen label:

  1. Cream/lotion/gel/spray/stick – Start with the basics. This is the format that the formulation comes in. Simply, how is it dispensed onto your skin.
  2. Chemical vs. physical – There are two types of sunscreen formulation. Physical sunscreen produces a physical barrier on the skin that deflects the light away from the skin. It is often associated with heavy, white, thick creams. Chemical sunscreen formulations allow UV light from the sun to reach the skin. The chemicals in the sunscreen then react with the light, convert it to heat which is then released from the skin. There is no right or wrong here. It is down to personal choice. I will be publishing a journal post on this shortly. 
  3. Sun Protection Factor (SPF) – There are two types (or wavelengths) of ultraviolet light (UV) that reach our skin from the sun. Both are damaging and can cause cancer. The two types of UV are known as UVA and UVB. SPF is a measure of how long the sunscreen protects you against UVB light ONLY. Without any sunscreen, your skin would show signs of burning in approximately 10 minutes, depending on your skin type. You must take that figure and multiply it by the SPF figure. So, assuming you use the correct amount, SPF 5 will protect you for 10 x 5 = 50 minutes.
  4. UVA – This is the one people miss and shouldn’t. A good sunscreen must protect against UVA as well as UVB. As you now know, SPF covers off UVB. To make things confusing, UVA protection is marked by either the European symbol (the letters UVA in a circle) or the star rating system (stars placed within a circle). You need at least one of these indicators on your pack as UVA is the predominant form of UV light that reaches us on earth. 
  5. Broad spectrum – This simply means that the sunscreen covers against both UVA and UVB wavelengths. This is more common on US packaging but is starting to appear on European sunscreen packs. It is still important to check the separate SPF and UVA ratings.
  6. Waterproof – This is one to be slightly wary of. Ignoring any science or marketing claims for one second, it seems logical that anything you put on your skin will come off, at least partially, when you are in the sea, a swimming pool, under a shower or sweating. Add to that the possibility of you wiping yourself with a towel and it seems reasonable to expect that the protective barrier of sunscreen you originally applied will not be completely intact. Watch out for claims about waterproof and water resistance. Think smart and re-apply when you think it makes sense.
  7. Sun block – European sunscreen products are not allowed to use terms like sun block, sun blocker or sun protection. Anything that implies all day prevention or the fact that one application is all you need is deemed to be misleading. That’s because no sunscreen provides 100% protection. If you see a product making any of these claims, put it back on the shelf and consider another brand.
  8. Fragrance – This is down to personal choice again. However, for those with sensitive skin or acne, fragrance is very often an irritant so choose a sunscreen without fragrance. Do a small patch test on your skin if you’re not sure.
  9. Other – there are all sorts of chemicals names, long terms and words that may not be immediately obvious to you when you pick up a sunscreen. There are also conflicting views all over the internet on many of them. For example, the chemical vs. physical sunscreen debate seems to attract enormous attention. Ultimately, use whatever product you like but use enough and use the correct dosage. Using something is better than nothing and any product that you like is one you are more likely to use regularly. That’s the most important thing. 

Also read: What’s the correct dose?

Our recommendation

Firstly, I would prefer you use a cream, lotion or gel.

Something that requires you to physically rub product into your skin. That way you know you are protected. Too much of the content from a spray or aerosol misses the skin and just floats off into the ether. It is also much easier with a cream, lotion or gel to make sure you have the correct dosage.

Secondly, as a minimum, I always use SPF 30 with the European UVA circle sign. Hit all of these and you have a really good product no matter which brand you’re using.

There are many great scientific life-saving inventions, drugs, vaccines and other medical advancements. The trusty old bottle of sunscreen defends us from the sun’s rays thereby helping to prevent skin cancer. And yet sunscreen doesn’t get a look in when we think of what it can do for us.

Fundamentally, the labelling is too complex, it causes confusion and must change. However, in its simplest form, sunscreen literally is a life jacket so please wear it.

Thanks for reading.

p.s. If any of the responses in the Superdrug survey resonated with you, then absolutely no worries. I get it. That’s the point of this journal. Dig around and you’ll find the answers you need. Or just email us anytime.