reading sunscreen labels

How to Read Sunscreen Labels

Wearing sunscreen is especially important for people with inflammatory arthritis and conditions such as lupus, because their medications or disease may make them extra sun-sensitive. But choosing the right sunscreen may not be so simple. The good news is sunscreen labels – governed by federal regulations and designed to rein in over-reaching claims like “waterproof” and “sunblock” – can help you pick the best protection for your skin. Here’s what to look for on sunscreen labels.

Broad-spectrum protection

Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation causes sunburn, while UVA exposure leads to skin cancer and early skin aging. Sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” protects against both UVB and UVA rays.

Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

All sunscreens carry an SPF rating, but on products that don’t meet broad-spectrum standards, SPF rates only UVB protection. Little evidence suggests that SPFs higher than 50 offer more protection than SPF 50. (The SPF value does not indicate the amount of time you can spend in the sun.)


No sunscreen is “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” but those that pass a water-exposure test (40 or 80 minutes) may be labeled “water resistant.” “No product remains fully intact when you’re sweating or in the water,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Expiration date

Sunscreen that is past its expiration date may not provide as much protection as promised. If there is no expiration date, toss it after three years.

Fact box

Like over-the-counter drugs, sunscreens list warnings, active ingredients, detailed directions and other important information.


Sunscreens that aren’t broad-spectrum, have an SPF lower than 15 or both carry a warning noting they protect only against sunburn, not cancer or premature aging. Sunscreens that don’t pass the water-resistance test must say so, says Dr. Zeichner, who recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Author: Emily Delzell

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