What Do Labels on Sunscreen Bottles Really Mean?

Bottle Labels

If you want the best sun protection for your skin, then it's important to understand how to read the sunscreen product label to get the best product for your skin. So how do you read the custom sunscreen labels?

For starters it should be noted that many popular sunscreen bottle labels will use clever marketing to make you think you are buying what you need, like using the words 'baby' or 'kid' on the product label. But don’t be confused by the product’s custom label information.

The truth is that the FDA does not regulate these terms or who can use them on custom labels, so it can be used almost on any sunscreen.

This means that any sunscreen company can put these terms on their product label to trick consumers into thinking it is made for babies and kids.


Sunscreen Facts Vs Bottle Label Marketing

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in America. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. One person dies from melanoma every hour, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Understanding the differences between marketing on the custom labels of the sunscreen bottle and the truth can save your health.

Look at the sunscreen chart below from American Academy of Dermatology Inc to see many unknown facts about sunscreen and sun burn protection.

Sunscreen labels chart

Many people think that you cannot get sun burned on a cloudy day, this is false. The truth is that on a cloudy day the sun’s infrared rays are blocked, making your body feel cool, but this only blocks about 20% of the suns UV rays, so you can get burned on a shady day by the other 80% of the sun’s uv rays.

“A tan is literally your body’s response to being injured by UV exposure,” says Darrell Rigel, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.

When your skin cells are exposed to UV light they create more melanin, this is the pigment that colors your skin and is the reason you get darker. This is also a sign that damage has been done to your skin, not protection for the future.

“Many people think that if your skin is already dark, that you don’t need sunscreen. This is false. Many people with more pigment in their skin will have a lower skin cancer risk,” says Dr. Rigel, but they’re not immune.

“It’s the same as smoking cigarettes—no matter how much damage you’ve done, it’s always good to stop,” says Dr. Rigel.

"Unfortunately, skin cancer is frequently diagnosed later in people of color—perhaps because of the misconception that they are not at risk—so it’s often progressed to a later stage and is more difficult to treat,” says Dr. Wu

For example, Singer Bob Marley died of melanoma on his toe that was misdiagnosed as a soccer injury.

“Much of what you see on the custom label is marketing, which can make it difficult to decode what’s truly meaningful,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D. Director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.  



   SPF means Sun protection factor. This is a measure of how long the sun will take to burn your skin. The SPF on custom labels measures how well the sunscreen product can protect your skin from ultraviolet B rays.

B rays are the common UV light that can cause sunburn. When you skin get burned, it is because of the ultraviolet (UV) B rays.

For example, when you put on sunscreen with an SPF 15, your skin will take 15 minutes longer to turn red, versus using no sunscreen.

When you put on SPF 30, theoretically the label is telling you that your skin will take about 30 minutes longer to turn red.  But remember these SPF numbers are determined in a laboratory, real life and different environments outside can be different.

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of The suns UV-B rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of The suns UV-B rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of The suns UV-B rays

only SPF 15 and higher has been shown to reduce cancer risk and prevent premature skin aging. It's important to know that sunscreen cannot block 100% of the suns UVB rays. The FDA says there is no evidence that SPF 50 and higher will protect you any better.

The most dangerous times to suntan are from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the sun is directly overhead, but dermatologists were all unanimous that tanning at any hour of the day is not safe for your skin.

UVB vs UVA: What is the difference?

Both cause skin cancer.

UVB rays are strongest around 10am – 2pm, these sun rays are not known to penetrate deep, but still damage your skin.

UVA rays penetrate the skin more, are constant all day long, and contribute to cancer, aging, wrinkles, skin sagging and more.

“If you use SPF 50, you really get the protection of an SPF 20 based on how people actually apply it,” says New York City dermatologist Doris Day, MD.

Being tan isn’t a good indicator of healthy vitamin D levels, says Ronnie Klein, MD, assistant professor at Yale Dermatology.

One classic study of Hawaiian surfers found that although all participants were tanned, many were still lacking vitamin D. “You can get enough vitamin D from a mix of diet, supplements, and incidental sun exposure,” says Dr. Klein.

 Dr. Klein and Dr. Day say that she often sees the worst sunburns on cloudy days. “Clouds block infrared rays, so you don’t feel hot, but they only block 20 percent of UV rays so you can still get burned,”


Sensitive Skin

This usually means that the sunscreen product does not contain fragrance, oils, PABA, or other active ingredients found in chemical sunscreen that irritate the skin.

Usually 'sensitive skin' sunscreens are hypoallergenic, and only contain titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide.


This term is regulated on all custom labels by the Food and Drug administration, seeing this term means the product contains ingredients that help shield the skin from both UVB and UVA rays.

(Ultraviolet A rays accelerate age related skin damage and contribute to melanoma, which is the deadliest type of skin cancer.

Water Resistant

Many custom labels will say that the sunscreen is waster proof or water resistant. But there is actually no such thing as a water proof sunscreen, because eventually it will come off your skin. According to the FDA standards, this 'Water Resistant' labeling on the product means the sunscreen has been tested and will maintain its SPF level for 40 minutes while swimming or sweating. After 40 minutes you will ne to re-apply.

'Very water resistant' means the sunscreen product will maintain its SPF label for 80 minutes while swimming or sweating. After 80 minutes you will need to re-apply the sunscreen onto your body for further protection. 

Even if your skin is dry after using a water resistant sunscreen, you need to re-apply it within the time frame recommended. Why? Because the sunscreen chemical will get broken down by the sun’s rays.

The best tips for applying and re-applying sunscreen are below:

  • Apply and re-apply every 2 hours.
  • Apply the sunscreen after you have used your towel and are dry.
  • When sweating
  • After swimming or wet in the water.


Protects Against Aging & Skin Cancer

This is not a regulated term, but well known that if used properly, any broad spectrum sunscreen with a SPF 30 or higher will help protect your skin from aging and skin cancer. 'Proper use' means using at least 1 teaspoon per body part. For example your leg or arm. And reapplying it every 2 hours. 



You'll find this on sunscreen products that are manufactured for athletes who want a sunscreen that stays on during heavy exercise and outdoor activity. This term is not regulated by the FDA. When you see the words 'sports' on sunscreen, it usually means that sunscreen product will stay on wet skin for about 40-80 minutes. 


Baby or Kid

Many sunscreen manufacturers have produced baby or kid sunscreen products. But the truth is that the FDA does not regulate this term on custom labels or who can use it, so it can be used almost on any sunscreen.

Some sunscreen manufacturers do make a baby and kid specific sunscreen, usually with just Titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. But again, this is up to the manufacturer to determine what ingredients they use on the product label.

But remember, The FDA does not regulate this term so it is up to the consumer to check the label and find the correct active ingredients in it.

Professionals recommend that even when using sunscreen on children, it is best to keep them in the shade and dress them with clothing that will protect their skin from the sun. For example, long sleeved shirts and pants with a wide brim hat.


Dermatologist Tested or Approved

If you see dermatologist tested or approved on the product label, then just remember that this is really just marketing and means nothing. It just means that a dermatologist may have been involved in the process or manufacturing the sunscreen. There is no way for the customer to know what dermatologist it was, or what the tests were, if any.



After reading all these sunscreen protection tips, what sunscreen product do you choose?

As long as the brand you choose has the following

  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Broad-spectrum protection
  • Water resistance

and if you apply and re-apply it correctly, you should be safe.