Mar 11, 2024

Don't Get Burned This Summer: Learn What Sunscreen Labels Really Mean

sunscreen labels

Consumer Reports recently released a report detailing their investigation into sunscreens that revealed 43 percent of the brands they tested did not protect as well as claimed. In response to its finding, the watchdog group urged the FDA to launch a study of its own, but the FDA is reportedly waiting for more information. Nevertheless, the new report underscores the importance of consumers knowing what it is they’re getting with the products they’re buying.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), also taking up the issue by seconding Consumer Reports, has joined the call for an FDA study. “There is simply no doubt about it—some consumers are being totally burned when they buy sunscreen, which is why the FDA must give sunscreen labels the third degree,” Schumer said.

Currently, the FDA does have regulations for sunscreen products in place, but does not test individual brands itself to ensure that they do what they claim on the label, according to Consumer Reports. Instead, the FDA relies on the results from the tests sunscreen manufacturers conduct on their own products, the magazine said. In light of this information, the findings in the Consumer Reports investigation might not be surprising.

Despite this unsettling information, not all sunscreens are the same. Although some brands are allegedly misleading customers with their labels, many do not. To help you discern the difference between sunscreen products, check out the information below.

What Is SPF?

SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and serves as a measure for a sunscreen’s ability to prevent ultraviolet rays from harming the skin, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. SPF numbers are determined very simply: If it takes you 20 minutes without sunscreen to start getting red, then an SPF 15 will prevent you from burning 15 times longer. Theoretically, this would offer nearly five hours of protection. This is not ideal, though, and the FDA recommends that sunscreen be reapplied at least every two hours, regardless of the SPF number.

Sunscreen products can have SPF ratings that go as high as 100 or more, but according to the FDA there is no data to demonstrate that an SPF higher than 50 offers more protection. Sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 suggest a greater level of protection when they really provide consumers with protection for a similar amount of time, about two hours, as a sunscreen with SPF 50 would. This is why the FDA has suggested labeling all sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 as “50 plus.”

What Does “Broad Spectrum” Mean?

Sunscreens that claim to provide “Broad Spectrum” protection offer a better defense from harmful sun rays than those that don’t. Specifically, “Broad Spectrum” refers to the sunscreen's ability to protect against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA). Each form of UV radiation can cause a different skin ailment, ranging from a sunburn to skin cancer.

Generally, sunburns are caused by UVB, while UVA can cause sunburns, skin cancer, and premature skin aging. Even though sunscreens that are not labeled “broad spectrum” can prevent a sunburn, they will not prevent the more harmful damage of UVA rays. UVA rays may not cause immediate damage like a sunburn, but will contribute to more serious skin conditions like melanoma, down the road.

What’s the Difference Between Organic and Inorganic Sunscreens?

Sunscreens fall into two categories — organic, which are made up of chemicals that absorb UV radiation and release it harmlessly, and inorganic, which are made up of minerals that create a physical “screen” that blocks UV radiation. At this point in time, both forms of sunscreen offer full protection from the sun, providing they are broad spectrum.

The greatest difference between organic and inorganic sunscreens are their appearance. Organic sunscreens are easy to apply and show no signs that you are wearing sunscreen. Inorganic sunscreens are made from minerals that are finely ground, and although they have become less noticeable with technological advancements, they may still leave your skin looking as if you are wearing sunscreen.

Is Sunscreen Waterproof or Sweatproof?

Sunscreen manufacturers used to be able to make broad claims about their products. For example, sunscreen was once called sunblock, and it could be advertised as “waterproof” and “sweatproof.” This is no longer the case, because claims such as these overstate how effective sunscreen actually is. Sunscreen will not fully block the sun, but will briefly provide protection.

Sunscreen labels can still claim that they are water resistant, though. Nevertheless, if this claim is made the label must also indicate how long the sunscreen remains effective after it gets wet. The FDA has determined that only two lengths of time are acceptable for this: 40 and 80 minutes. If a sunscreen is not water resistant, it must include a statement on the label that if a consumer is planning on swimming or sweating they should use a water resistant sunscreen.

No matter the situation, if a person plans on spending any sort of time in the sun they should be wearing sunscreen, regardless of the SPF number. Even though the SPF number is the easiest way to gauge how protective a given sunscreen is, it is also the most misleading. Experts say that consumers should instead make sure the sunscreen they purchase is broad spectrum and will protect them adequately while they have it on.

Sunscreen is not the only product with potentially misleading labels. If you would like to learn about other products that may contain deceptive information, please visit our information center.