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How to Read a Sunscreen Label

6 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About Their Sunscreen

We all know about sunscreen and how important it is for not just us, but our kids, to wear it. But with the drugstore packed with hundreds of different brands, promising as many different variations of coverage — SPF 15 or 50? UVA or UVB? — it's hard to know what's the safest one to use to keep our family safe.

"The sun is amazing, but it's also risky, and every day you step outside, you should be considering it," Christopher Gavigan, the cofounder of The Honest Company, told POPSUGAR.

The father of four should know: he's spent the past several years working on the company's line of sunscreens — the latest iteration, an all-ages SPF 50+ sunscreen lotion, just launched this week — and regularly speaks with consumers about their sunscreen concerns. In fact, following some negative feedback surrounding the efficacy of the brand's SPF 30 sunscreen, Gavigan spoke with "well over 30 to 40 people who had less-than-positive experiences" to find out what he could learn.

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One of the key realizations he discovered was the importance of education. The best sunscreen on the market provides little protection if it's not used properly.

"We all lead busy lives, but we have to be mindful and slow down," he said of the need to do more than buy the bottle that simply looks best. "If you learn this information once, you'll know it for the rest of your life. These are the tools you'll have to prevent burning, skin damage, and — God forbid — cancer over a lifetime. And over your children's lifetimes as well."

Here, the most important sunscreen questions you might not have even thought to ask, answered.

1. What's the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens — and Does It Matter?

All sunscreens fall into one of these two categories:


  • Mineral. A mineral sunscreen is a physical barrier that sits on top of the skin and actively reflects the sun's rays. If you look at the label, you'll see either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. "We use zinc," Gavigan said of the brand's product line. "It's the only single ingredient that does the full, broad spectrum — UVA and UVB. With titanium, you have to blend it with other ingredients to get full coverage. You'll never see titanium dioxide on its own."

  • Chemical. Active ingredients like oxybenzone or octinoxate absorb the energy of the sun's rays into the upper layers of the dermis, where it's converted to heat and then dispersed in the skin. The issue? Studies show that these sunscreens not only penetrate the skin but go even deeper, into the blood stream. Although effects aren't known, "we believe that what's inside of you can potentially affect your health," Gavigan said. "So, in this case, we take the 'better safe than sorry' approach."

So, why would anyone choose chemical? Well, a few reasons:

There's a misconception surrounding what's organic.
Although chemical sunscreens are also known as "organic," they aren't in the sense consumers expect. It has nothing to do with being raised without pesticides. In chemistry, "organic" actually means that the chemical is built from carbon molecules. You'll never see a mineral sunscreen with the word "organic" on the bottle solely because those don't contain carbon molecules.

The spreadability factor.
A common complaint with mineral sunscreens is that, because they are made from minerals, they're harder to spread smoothly and evenly on the skin. Thus, brands like Honest have reformulated their solutions to reduce the amount of zinc oxide with the help of "active boosters" to make them more physically appealing for users.

2. Does "Broad Spectrum" Really Mean Anything?

Your SPF-labeled sunscreen protects you against sunburn, redness that is a result of UVB rays. If you also want your sunscreen to offer scientifically proven protection against UVA rays, which are the ones that can cause skin cancer, damage, and aging, you better make sure your sunscreen has "broad spectrum" written on it.

3. The Higher the SPF, the Better?

Not necessarily. When it comes to the degree of protection a product offers, "The FDA is constantly adjusting their recommendations," Gavigan told us, adding that the newest guidelines state that SPF 50+ is the highest you can go. "If you see SPF 200, SPF 75, SPF 90 . . . those numbers aren't meaningful in the end product."

What an SPF means is this: with an SPF 15, it will take your skin 15 times longer to redden than if you weren't wearing any sunscreen at all. (If it takes you 20 minutes to redden sans protection, using SPF 15 should give you 300 minutes of protection from UVB rays — you'd need to reapply more often to protect against damaging UVA ones.)

The minimum recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology is SPF 30. Although a higher number will give you more coverage in theory, in practice, your protection level has far more to do with how you apply the sunscreen. To be safe, Gavigan recommends staying in the SPF 30-50 range.

4. So, Why Am I Still Getting Burned?

"We take sun protection seriously, but it's an inherently risky category," Gavigan admitted. "When you're out playing in the sun or on the beach, or even in the day-to-day." Although every person's skin varies, in his research and in speaking with consumers, he noted a few common considerations.

  • Did you use enough?
    For most adults, one ounce of sunscreen — roughly the volume of a golf ball — is typically enough to cover the exposed portion of the body. Kids in swimsuits might require the same or slightly less if they have protective clothing.
  • Did you reapply?
    Reapplication is not stressed enough by the FDA, Gavigan noted. "With all sunscreens, you need to reapply, especially when you are in and around the water or sweating. If a sunscreen is water-resistant, that doesn't mean it's waterproof," he said. "And if you towel-dry, you just moved it around and off your body. You'd need to immediately reapply then and again at least every two hours."
  • Did you read the instructions?
    Not many people read the label, Gavigan found, but to him, that's the most important step. "You look at the label for Baby Tylenol — you are going to pay attention to that expiration date and those usage instructions," Gavigan said. "You should absolutely look at how to use a product. 'Apply liberally, shake well . . . ' It's all on there for a reason."

5. Can I Put Sunscreen on My Baby?

The FDA has regulatory rules that prohibit sunscreen use on babies under 6 months of age, but for newborns born in the Summer months, that might feel unrealistic. Don't grab the nearest baby-safe sunscreen just yet, however.

"I would encourage parents to do research when they see the word 'baby' in the marketplace to look at the safety of the ingredients and to check with their pediatricians," he said. "You want to ensure that when you are using something on a baby under that age, you are using the right type and the right amount." Zinc oxide, for instance, is also in diaper rash ointments.

6. What's Better — a Lotion, Stick, or Spray?

As long as they are used correctly, they all are equally effective, relative to their protection levels. "Some kids prefer the spray, parents might feel better using a lotion, younger kids might take to the stick because they can apply it themselves," Gavigan said. "Bottom line, you want your family to be covered, so use whatever range is best for everyone, from baby to grandparent."

Image Sources: Shutterstock and The Honest Company
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