Outdoor First Aid

Understanding Sunscreen Labels

Here's how to make sense of your sunscreen.

A quick lesson in understanding label-ese.

You hear the advice all the time: “Read the label.” Great. But what if the label seems like it’s written in Chinese? To make sense of the words printed on sunscreen bottles, here’s the translation:

PABA FREE: Marketing lingo; PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) is an ingredient that was used in the first generation of sunscreens but is no longer used because it irritated skin.

ALL-DAY PROTECTION: More marketing. Translation: “apply early and reapply often.”

BROAD SPECTRUM: Indicates that a sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays; nearly all do nowadays.

SPF (SUN PROTECTION FACTOR): A number that measures the amount of protection; SPF 30 is best for most uses, and SPF 15 is considered the minimum you should use.

SWEATPROOF: Won’t clog pores and come off when you sweat; doesn’t mean rubproof, however.

WATER RESISTANT/WATERPROOF: Water-resistant means the sunscreen will tolerate up to 40 minutes of water exposure; waterproof means 80 minutes. Some sunscreens tout protection as long as 6 or 8 hours, but the FDA doesn’t recognize such claims.