How to Read and Understand Sunscreen Ingredient Labels
Something that nobody ever talks about is what all those ingredients mean on a sunscreen label, so we are glad our friends from Byrdie tackle the issue. Here we give you a quick summary on how to tackle this sometime misleading labels.
Check the SPF
According to the FDA, SPF is a measure of how much solar energy is required to produce sunburn on protected skin (with sunscreen) relative to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin (without sunscreen). "As the SPF value increases, sunburn protection increases," the FDA's website reads.
An SPF level “at or around SPF 50 is recommended, as that's the magical number where you are maximizing your UVB protection while using a formulation that is easy enough to rub in and will promote you to use the right quantity of sunscreen.” Still, it's important to note that there are many sunscreens over SPF 50 with easy-to-use formulations.
The importance of a Broad Spectrum
To best protect your skin, you need protection against two types of rays. “UVB rays damage the skin’s upper surface and are the main cause of sunburn,” explains Dr. Fayne Frey, while “UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and primarily cause the signs of skin aging, wrinkling, pigmentation, and sagging. Both UVA and UVB rays cause skin cancer.” To safeguard your skin, opt for labels that advertise broad spectrum protection, which fights both UVA and UVB light. Another way to put it, as Linkner says, is that “UVA is responsible for aging the skin. UVB light is responsible for burning the skin. Broad spectrum refers to a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB light.”
Chemical VS Mineral
Chemical and mineral sunscreens both work, albeit in different ways. Simply put, chemical sunscreens rely on ingredients that cause chemical reactions to absorb UV rays and release them from the skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use inorganic compounds, which sit on top of the skin to deflect and scatter rays. Specifically, Frey says, “The term ‘mineral’ usually refers to the use of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both as the sunscreen filters in the formulation.” Most drugstore or big brand sunscreens are chemical-based, but more and more brands are offering mineral alternatives, especially as potentially unsafe and environmentally hazardous ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate lead to greater restrictions on chemical usage.
Mineral sunscreens might also be easier on your skin, says Linkner: “Mineral or natural sunscreens are less irritating than chemical ones. If you have sensitive skin, look for formulations that contain physical blockers.” For foolproof protection, Dr. Kristina Goldenberg of Goldenberg Dermatology in NYC suggests opting for formulas that combine the benefits of chemical and mineral protectants. Goldenberg says, “I recommend sunscreen with high SPF, water resistant for outdoor activity, with a physical blocker, like zinc or titanium oxide, and chemical blocker, like avobenzone.”