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Sunscreen Labels De-Mystified (part 1)

Sunscreen Labels De-Mystified (part 1)

We’ve been seeing this headline everywhere this week: “Sunscreen Labels a Mystery to Most.” According to a recent survey in JAMA Dermatology, only 43 percent of people know how to decode their sunscreen label. And while we know you clever Badgers probably make up the majority of that 43%, we wanted to offer you an easy-to-follow guide you can reference as well as share with friends and loved ones who might be in the other 57%.

This is the first in a two-part series. Next we’ll take a look at Badger-specific claims—why we make them and what they mean for you. So be sure to check back!

1. FDA Drug Facts Panel

Most of what you see on sunscreen labels is regulated by the FDA. So the first thing you want to look for is an FDA Drug Facts Panel. This tells you, without a doubt, that the sunscreen in your hand has been tested and approved as a sunscreen. This is really important because, as we’ve noted before, without testing you really don’t know what SPF you’re getting.

You might have read recently that mineral (aka “natural”) sunscreens using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide don’t work as well as conventional sunscreens that use active ingredients like oxybenzone or octinoxate. When you see an FDA Drug Facts Panel on a mineral sunscreen, you can be sure that it has passed the same testing requirements as a conventional sunscreen, and in fact works just as well.

2. SPF

What is it?
SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is the measurement of how well a sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays. It does not tell you how well a sunscreen protects you from UVA rays, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Where do you see it?
On FDA regulated sunscreen, the SPF appears on the front and in the center of the label.

What does it means?
UVB rays are the ones that cause sunburn and are linked to an increased risk of skin cancer. Another way to think of this is “sunburn protection factor.” My helpful mnemonic device is UVB = Burning.

It’s important to understand that the SPF scale isn’t linear, meaning a really high SPF doesn’t offer significantly more protection.

Sunscreen Labels De-Mystified - SPF Chart

In order to achieve the SPF indicated on the bottle, you must apply the full, recommended amount and reapply at least every 2 hours. The FDA tests using 2mg of sunscreen per square inch of skin – and this is the same for every sunscreen they test. The math is tricky for me personally, but when we measured it here at Badger, it roughly translates to one ounce for an adult body in a swimsuit. So it’s a lot more than you think!

3. Broad Spectrum

What is it?
“Broad Spectrum” tells you whether the FDA regulated sunscreen provides you with UVA protection. Unlike SPF, which assigns a number, the FDA’s UVA test is pass/fail – meaning it either does or does not offer adequate UVA protection.

Where do you see it?
On FDA regulated sunscreen labels, the term “Broad Spectrum" appears near the SPF in the same font, font color, and font size, uninterrupted by graphics. I mention these specifics because in the past this was unregulated but is now backed by testing. The correct formatting lets you know that testing has been done. When choosing a sunscreen for you and your family, be sure it says “Broad Spectrum” in the format outlined above so that you know you’re being protected.

Why is it so important?
UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, and are what cause premature aging and sun spots. They are the same strength year-round, and are not deflected by the ozone layer, cloud cover, or windows. So you’re being exposed to them all the time!

While UVA rays are less likely to cause sunburn, they are linked to an increased risk of skin cancer. My helpful mnemonic device is UVA = Aging.

Important note:
Sunscreens in the US are not required to protect you from UVA rays. The “Broad Spectrum” labeling requirement is pretty new, and is only really there to help you identify which sunscreens offer adequate UVA protection.

If the sunscreen label or packaging says something along the lines of “UVA/UVB protection!” but doesn’t say “Broad Spectrum” in the format indicated above, there’s a very good chance that the sunscreen is unregulated, and was not submitted for formal UVA testing.

4. Water Resistance

What is it?
Done in conjunction with SPF testing, water resistance measures the amount of time the SPF level remains effective in the water. The FDA allows two water resistant designations on sunscreen labels: 40 minutes and 80 minutes.

The FDA does not allow sunscreens to claim “waterproof” or “sweat proof,” as these terms overstate the effectiveness of sunscreen. In other words, no sunscreen can ever make the claim of never washing off in the water. The FDA also doesn’t let sunscreen labels say “sunblock” because, as you’ve probably guessed, no sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays.

Where will you see it?
Generally, if a sunscreen passes water resistance testing this will be stated on the front of the label, which is where we typically look for it when purchasing sunscreen. If you can’t immediately tell, then flip the tube and read the Drug Facts Panel. Sunscreens that are not water-resistant are required to instruct customers to “use a water resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating.”

Craving more information? Check out the FDA’s Q&A on sunscreen labels.

Our website also has a ton of information about sunscreen, and we've written posts on this blog as to why we don't use clear zinc oxide, mindful sun safety, DIY sunscreens, and tips for application.

Check out Badger's Mineral Sunscreens.

As always, your friends here at Badger are happy to help you make sense of sunscreen labels or any other stuff you might have questions about. Just drop us a line or post your questions in the comments below!

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