What Should a Person Look for on a Sunscreen Label?


Not all sunscreens are created equal. They come in a variety of different formulations — from lotions to gels to powders to sprays — and may contain a number of different ingredients, which do not all offer equal protection against the sun’s harmful rays.

So it’s not only important to wear sunscreen, it’s also important to choose one that offers effective protection — especially when you consider that an estimated 90 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million cases of skin cancer diagnosed each year are caused by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. When used in conjunction with hats and other clothing, umbrellas, and other measures, sunscreen can not only decrease the risk of skin cancer but also prevent wrinkles, freckles, and other signs of aging caused by the sun.

To help you better understand what to look for on a sunscreen label, we spoke with Steven Wang, head of dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Basking Ridge, in New Jersey.

Sun Protection Factor

The abbreviation SPF on sunscreen packaging refers to the sun protection factor. It is the standard way to measure the degree of protection that a sunscreen provides. SPF measures protection predominantly against the wavelength of sunlight known as UVB, which is the major cause of sunburn. A product with a higher SPF value offers higher UVB protection.

The number on a sunscreen product indicates the amount of time you can stay out in the sun without getting burned. If you normally get burned after 15 minutes in the sun, for example, a product with an SPF of 30 will allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer compared with wearing no sunscreen. In theory, this would give you 450 minutes, or seven and a half hours, in the sun without getting a sunburn. However, this assumes the product has been applied properly and reapplied as it gets rubbed or washed off.

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Broad Spectrum

The SPF value does not measure the degree of protection against UVA — the other portion of the UV spectrum. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB rays and are the major cause of skin aging and wrinkles. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer. According to US Food and Drug Administration guidelines, products labeled broad spectrum must also provide significant protection against UVA rays.

Ingredients that indicate a product has adequate UVA protection include avobenzone, octocrylene, and zinc oxide.

“When choosing a sunscreen product, you should look for the designation of broad spectrum. I recommend an SPF of 30 or higher for daily use,” Dr. Wang says. “If you will be participating in sports or other outdoor activities, you should look for an SPF of 50 or higher along with a designation of water resistance.”

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When and How Much to Apply

To attain the level of protection stated on the packaging, an adequate amount of sunscreen must be used. For an average adult, the ideal amount is 2 milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. This translates to about 3 tablespoons (1.4 ounces) to cover the back, torso, face, legs, and arms.

Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours if you’re staying outdoors.

Research has shown that children who have experienced a sunburn at an early age are at almost double the risk for developing melanoma in adulthood, so it’s also extremely important to put it on children before they play outside, and to reapply often.

“Finally, I recommend choosing a product that you enjoy using, both in its texture and its smell,” Dr. Wang concludes. “If you don’t like a product, you’ll be less likely to use it. In addition, you should be sure to use the appropriate amount and reapply frequently to get the best protection from your sunscreen products.”

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I was diagnosed with stage IV Melanoma in Nov. 1998, and thanks to wonderful Dr. & an experimental Rx, I am still here. I also had nine (9) surgeries.

Isn't titanium dioxide also an effective ingredient in a broad spectrum sunscreen?

Dear Confidence, titanium dioxide is an ingredient in many sunscreens, but it is usually combined with other components because it does not block all wavelengths of UVA. Thank you for your comment.

Nothing really works on my face, my cheeks turn very red and swell up. I mix mostly zinc with a little dark make up. That has really done the best. Is zinc safe for me to use?

Dear Ellen, if you have sensitive skin, we recommend you discuss this with a dermatologist. Thank you for your comment, and best wishes to you.

Just had a basal cell removed and it was worse than I thought it was. Always looked for brown spots, but this was a waxy looking whitehead. Please go to your dermatologist and get checked!

Dear Joanne, we’re sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Thank you for sharing your experience, and best wishes to you.

What all natural or organic sunscreen do you recommend for toddlers? Or is there something "top-rated" for children?

Dear Diana, unfortunately we are not able to recommend specific brands. You may want to speak with your child’s pediatrician. It is important to look for sunscreens that are broad-spectrum and block a range of UV light. Whatever you choose, remember to reapply often, especially if they are going in the water. Wearing hats and other protective clothing is also an important part of sun protection in children. Thank you for your comment.

Can u recommend a brand of sunscreen?

Dear Joseph, because different people have different preferences, you should look for one that you like, in texture and fragrance — as long as offers broad-spectrum protection.and has an SPF 50 or higher if you will be outside for a long time. Thank you for your comment.

When we consider the down stream impact and the chemical impact on coral reefs- which chemicals are okay to help protect from cancer as well as protect our reefs. Thanks for the double check.

The only thing that works on me is Banana Boat, otherwise I get a rash. Is banana boat spray 50spf and over a good choice?

Dear Cathy, if the sunscreen is broad spectrum, then that is probably a good choice for you. The important thing is to make sure that you use enough and to reapply often, especially if you are in the water. Thank you for your comment.

Great article...

Had a very large mole on arm had it for a year before it started bleeding and scabing up went to specialist and was diynosed with bassel sell skin cancer was not nice but have been lift with large scare on arm had to go very deep felt horrible for 6 months but better know so will put factor fifty on always know

I have a friend who says that a thing after spf 50 is useless and does not work. Do you know if there is any truth to that.
Thank you.

Dear Barbara, many experts say that an SPF of 50 is sufficient. Higher SPF numbers likely don’t provide much additional benefit. It’s more important to make sure you use enough and to reapply often, as well as to wear protective clothing and be careful if you are outside during peak hours of sunshine. Thank you for your comment.

Please address the chemicals in sunscreen that are of concern to women especially those with estrogen receptor positive breast cancer.

Dear Nancy, we recommend that you reach out to the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at 800-4CANCER to discuss this. Thank you for your comment.

Does the percentage of zinc oxide in a sunscreen matter, especially for preventing premature skin aging?

Dear Leigh Ann, the important things to look for on a sunscreen label is the sun protection factor (SPF), which should be between 30 and 50, and language indicating that it offers broad spectrum coverage. Thank you for your comment.