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Ingredient Truths: How To Read a Sunscreen Label

by kelly / June, 15 2016 01:30

One question I am asked all the time is - how do I make sure I’m buying the right sunscreen?

The answer comes down to understanding sunscreen labels.

With a little knowledge you can be sure you are buying the right ingredients and protection for your needs. Here's the break down.

SPF and Broad Spectrum Protection

One of the most important things to look out for when buying a sunscreen or any sun protection product is the SPF level and broad spectrum protection.

SPF stands for sun protection factor and measures how well a sunblock protects you from UVB rays. A brand can't simply claim their products have a specific SPF level. The FDA mandates SPF testing procedures every sunscreen / sun care product must go through to determine its SPF level.

At the very least you should go with an SPF 15 but many organizations, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, recommend SPF 30 at a minimum. We agree, an SPF 30 is preferable.

To make sure you are also being protected against UVA rays your product will also need the "Broad Spectrum" label. In general UVB rays cause sunburn and skin cancer while UVA rays cause skin aging and skin cancer. SPF does not measure UVA protection; it only measures UVB coverage. That's why using a sunscreen labeled "Broad Spectrum" (like our sun care products) is so important. Like the SPF rating, a sunscreen can't simply claim to be broad spectrum. There is an FDA mandated test all sun protection products must pass to be labeled "Broad Spectrum".

For even more in depth analysis and information on SPF and broad spectrum protection check out these two posts: What A Sunscreen's SPF Really Means and Broad Spectrum Sunscreen: What It Is and Why It's a Must.

Sunscreens are Considered Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drugs

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreens as OTCs similar to cough medicine, Advil, etc. Actually the FDA also considers some other odd things like toothpaste and antiperspirants as OTC drugs.

As a result of this, all sunscreens (actually any SPF product) must include a "Drug Facts" panel on the label with specific required information. Let's go through this panel section by section.

Active Ingredients

The active ingredients are the ones that are protecting you from UV rays. There are two types of active ingredients - chemical and mineral / physical.

A mineral / physical sunscreen will list zinc and/or titanium only in the “Active Ingredients” section. Anything else listed there is a chemical UV filter. Block Island Organics sunscreens are mineral only. For more on the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen check out our post: How Sunscreens Work: Mineral vs. Chemical.

One thing to be careful of - some sunscreens will be labeled "Mineral", "Physical" or "Mineral Based" but actually contain a combination of both chemical and mineral UV filters. That's why you have to be sure to check out the active ingredients if you want a mineral only sunblock.

Along with the type of active ingredient the FDA requires all brands to list the percentage of each active ingredient used.


The section includes required language by the FDA that discusses how sunscreens can help prevent sunburns and, with other sun protection measures, decrease the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.

Only products that are labeled "Broad Spectrum" (a sunscreen must go through broad spectrum testing to be labeled this way) and SPF 15 or higher are allowed to use this language.


The FDA requires these general warning to be listed on all sunscreens

  • For external use only
  • Do not use on damaged or broken skin
  • When using this product keep out of eyes. Rinse with water to remove
  • Stop use and ask a doctor if rash occurs
  • Keep out of reach of children
  • If product is swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away

If a sunscreen does not offer broad spectrum protection or if it does but has an SPF below 15 - then the product must include the following language: "Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."


Depending on if your sunscreen is a water resistant product or not the following directions will be included:

Non-Water Resistant Product:

  • Apply liberally 15 minutes before sun exposure
  • Use a water resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating
  • Reapply at least every 2 hours
  • Children under 6 months: Ask a doctor

Water Resistant Product:

  • Apply liberally 15 minutes before sun exposure
  • Children under 6 months: Ask a doctor
  • Reapply:
    • After 40 [or 80] minutes of swimming or sweating
    • Immediately after towel drying
    • At least every 2 hours

Water Resistant and Non-Water Resistant Products - for sunscreens with Broad Spectrum SPF values of 15 or higher:

  • Sun Protection Measures. Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. To decrease this risk, regularly use a sunscreen with a Broad Spectrum SPF value of 15 or higher and other sun protection measures including:
    • Limit time in the sun, especially from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
    • Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, hats, and sun-glasses

Inactive Ingredients

This is where all the other ingredients for the sunblock are listed. The ingredients will be listed and in alphabetical order. Some folks will claim the ingredients are listed in order of highest to lowest concentration. This is incorrect. The FDA sunscreen monograph (their rules for sunscreen ingredients, labeling, testing and more) says it must be in alphabetical order.

These inactive ingredients include ones that help preserve, emulsify, moisturize, condition and smooth out the sunscreen to further protect and benefit the skin.

Other Information

More required labeling by the FDA that discusses how the sunscreen should be protected from: excessive heat and direct sun.

Expiration Date

All sunscreens are required by the FDA to include an expiration date. Sometimes this date is printed on the bottle but more often than not you'll find it at the top of the tube. It will be embossed into the actual tube plastic. So there won't be any darker writing but instead the plastic at the top of the tube will be molded into an expiration date.

Buyer Beware

One last thing I want to say. There are a lot of "homemade" sunscreen's out there. Unfortunately these are a bit dangerous as they haven't gone through any of the required testing to prove their SPF level or broad spectrum protection.

So if you are not seeing all this required language or information on a sunscreen then definitely reconsider or avoid purchasing that bottle as it does not meet FDA regulations. Here's more about why while most homemade skin care products are a great idea, sunscreen is definitely not.

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