Sunscreen, What Does It Mean?
Last updated: May 2023
Go to your local pharmacy and pick up a bottle of sunscreen. Do you have your secret decoder ring? Do you have a translator? Do you have a doctorate in "sunscreenology?" SPF? Water-resistant? Broad-spectrum? What does it all mean? To the uninitiated, it can be really confusing. I am a fairly well-informed consumer and I still have many questions. It feels like the sun protection industry is changing by the minute and I cannot keep up. Do you feel the same way?
Making sense of it all
Well, if you do, then we are not alone. According to Roopal V. Kundu, an associate professor of dermatology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the claims on sunscreen bottles and tubes can seem like nonsense. A recent Washington Post article (with research from Consumer Reports) is able to clarify the unclear and make sense of it all. Thankfully, we found an interpreter!1
According to the article, there are seven important sunscreen terms that should be defined and understood before purchasing and using.1 These are:
1. SPF (Sun Protection Factor). This is a government-regulated measure of how well sunscreen guards against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which contribute to skin cancer. SPF 30 or above is the current recommendation. Some sunscreens are not living up to their claims, so higher SPF may be advisable.
2. Broad spectrum. This is a government-regulated feature related to a sunscreen's ability to protect against both UVB and UVA rays. Whereas higher SPF sunscreen protects better against UVB rays, broad spectrum lotions and sprays are effective against damaging UVA rays (associated with aging and skin cancer). But how well? Broad-spectrum is rated on a pass/fail basis by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not given scaled ratings like SPF.
3. Very water resistant. This is a government regulated measure of how well a sunscreen is able to retain its effectiveness after sweating or swimming. "Water resistant" maintains its effectiveness for 40 minutes, while "very water-resistant" works best for 80 minutes. No sunscreens are waterproof and must be reapplied after getting wet.
4. Sport. This is not government-regulated. It may mean that the product maintains its effectiveness better during sweating/swimming, but without a "water resistant" claim, you cannot be sure.
5. Dermatologist recommended. This is not government-regulated and is very subjective. Which dermatologists? Which doctors? What was the standard used?
6. Natural or mineral. This is not government-regulated and is related to whether the sunscreen is an actual physical barrier (found in minerals like zinc or titanium oxide that deflect the sun's rays or chemical sunscreens (such as avobenzene-based) that absorb UV light. Doctors have recommended mineral sunscreens for those with sensitive skin, but recent testing has shown that these sunscreens do not provide top-notch protection.
7. Reef safe. This is not government-regulated. Some sunscreens have been shown to damage coral reef systems, which in turns affects the health of our oceans. This claim ( of being environmentally safe), though, cannot be made definitively as manufacturers are not required to test products and demonstrate that they won't harm aquatic life. Research suggests that the oxybenzone found in chemical sunscreens hurts coral reefs leaving them vulnerable to disease and malnutrition.
What it means for you
The phrase "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) applies here. An informed consumer is a good consumer. Don't let ignorance of the product keep you from protecting your loved ones and you. Remember that you are your best advocate.
Do you sunscreen in the fall?