Decoding Sunscreen Labels

Understanding and being able to decode sunscreen labels can help you choose one that gives your skin the protection it needs and expects.

Did you know you can look up a country’s or city’s ultraviolet (UV) index with a simple search online? The search results provide an indication of potential UV damage severity to skin, particularly when the sun is at its highest which is typically around midday. For example, a reading of 0-2 indicates a low risk of harm. As the numbers increase so does the risk of skin damage.

On a day with little cloud cover in Singapore, the level of UV radiation usually peaks in the highs during the four-hour period between 11am and 3pm. Unfortunately, that is the duration that coincides with our typical lunch hours. Therefore, one shouldn’t step out of the house without any sunblock as UV rays account for 80 percent of skin aging, including wrinkles. The study reported in the “Clinical, Cosmetic And Investigational Dermatology” medical journal also found that a 2 percent increase in skin damage ages a face by three years.

You may think slathering your skin with any sunscreen is enough to ward off any potential sun damage but it isn’t. Applying the right one is important too, which is why you need to know what’s written on the label.

So what do the labels actually indicate? Let’s start with the common questions.

Decoding Sunscreen Labels-1What is broad spectrum sunscreen?

The sun rays that reach us comprise two harmful kinds: long wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short wave ultraviolet B (UVB). UVA rays can reach deep into the skin causing photo-aging such as premature skin aging, pigmentation, and wrinkles. UVB rays burn the top layer of the skin and play the key role in skin cancer development.

Broad spectrum sunscreen protects skin from both rays. Using a broad spectrum sunscreen not only helps to starve off these harmful effects but it can also potentially help prevent skin cancer.

Decoding Sunscreen Labels-1What is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It indicates a sunscreen’s ability to protect skin against UVB rays. The numbers associated with it denotes approximately how much UVB rays can be filtered out. For example:

  • SPF 15: 93 percent of the sun’s UVB rays
  • SPF 30: 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays
  • SPF 50: 98 percent of the sun’s UVB rays

It’s essential to note that no sunscreen can filter out 100 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. So it’s important to also wear protective clothing and seek shade.

Decoding Sunscreen Labels-1What is waterproof and water resistant sunscreen?

“Sweatproof” or “waterproof” sunscreen is a myth because sweat and water washes sunscreen off our skin. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) no longer allows such labels or claims. However, some sunscreens are water-resistant which typically allow them to stay effective for 40 to 80 minutes in water. If your skin remains dry while using water-resistant sunscreen, reapply every 2 hours as the sun’s rays do break down their efficacy.

Decoding Sunscreen Labels-1What does “sports” mean on sunscreen?

It means that the sunscreen is water-resistant and will stay on wet skin for 40 to 80 minutes. Ideal for when you’re engaging in sports or outdoor activities where you can expect to sweat. Just to be sure, check the label for “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant” on the description.

Decoding Sunscreen Labels-1What does “baby” and “sensitive skin” mean on sunscreen?

Sunscreens with the words “baby” and “sensitive skin” on their label contain active ingredients that are less likely to cause skin irritation. They are also usually hypoallergenic and do not contain fragrance, oils, and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA). Although they do offer good protection for babies, it is not advisable to apply sunscreen on those below six months old.

Decoding Sunscreen Labels-1What does the term “enriched with antioxidants” mean on sunscreen?

Antioxidants help prevent damage to skin cells by limiting the production of free radicals. Although sunscreens with such claims do help to a certain degree, they are not as fully effective as an antioxidant serum. For true efficacy and better protection, use both antoxidant serum and sunscreen in combination.

The sun plays an important role in our existence. However, prolonged exposure to its rays can cause severe damage to our beautiful skin. Get the right protection with the right sunscreen. Other things you can do is to stay out of the sun if there’s no need to be outdoors and wear a broad brimmed hat as well as protective apparels.


If you are worried or bothered about sagging skin or pigmentation, Ultherapy and Fraxel laser can help rejuvenate the skin. Treatments like intense pulsed light (IPL) and the Nd:YAG laser can address pigment problems. But prevention is always better than cure.

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