10 Terms You Need to Know When Shopping for Sunscreen

Wearing the right sunscreen matters. Read on for help understanding some of the terms you need to know when shopping for sunscreen.

The smell of freshly cut grass, backyard barbecues and swimming pool chlorine are a sure sign summer is in the air.

Another smell — that of sunscreen — is particularly important this time of year, as it is one of the best protections against skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer affects more people than all other cancers combined,

Because of its prevalence, wearing the right sunscreen matters. Read on for help understanding some of the terms you need to know when shopping for sunscreen.

UV Light

Sunscreen’s primary function is to prevent your skin from absorbing ultraviolet radiation. UV light is about 10 percent of the sun's light so, if you are in sunlight, you're getting hit with UV rays, regardless of the time of year or the weather.

“Most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the UV rays in sunlight,” the American Cancer Society says.


There are two types of UV rays sunscreen protects against: UVA and UVB. UVA or “long wave ultraviolet rays” cause skin to age. Short wave ultraviolet rays, called UVB, cause those painful sunburns you get from being in the sun too long. Even tanning beds have UV rays that cause cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which says you are 75 percent more likely to get skin cancer if you use tanning beds before age 30.

Sunscreen can absorb or block UV rays, and either approach is fine as long as it addresses both UVA and UVB rays.


One of the most important parts of picking sunscreen is the sun protection factor, an indicator of how much a product protects against UVB rays. SPF is “a measure of the time it would take you to sunburn if you were not wearing sunscreen as opposed to the time it would take with sunscreen on,” according to WebMD.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using SPF 15 or higher, although no level of SPF offers complete protection. SPF 15 filters out about 93 percent of UVB rays, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Going up to SPF 30 will protect against about 97 percent, and SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent.

“They may seem like negligible differences, but if you are light-sensitive, or have a history of skin cancer, those extra percentages will make a difference,” the foundation says.

Zinc Oxide

The addition of zinc oxide in sunscreen helps protect against UVA rays and generally doesn’t break down in the sun or cause other health concerns, according to the Environmental Working Group.

“Zinc oxide is EWG’s first choice for sun protection,” the organization says. “It is stable in sunlight and can provide greater protection from UVA rays than titanium oxide or any other sunscreen chemical approved in the U.S.”

Waterproof and Sweatproof

Do not be fooled by claims of sunscreens being waterproof or sweatproof, as the Food & Drug Administration says point blank, “no sunscreens are waterproof.” However, sunscreens can be water resistant for 40 or 80 minutes and should include reapplication instructions.

Expiration Date

Because sunscreens lose potency after one year, check the expiration dates, especially if you’re using bottles from last season.

Extra Ingredients

Be aware of extra ingredients in sunscreen, such as moisturizers or insect repellent. Research suggests that added Vitamin A and repellent “may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.” Additionally, repellent may diminish sunscreen effectiveness, according to a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.


If you tend to skip sunscreen to avoid breakouts, look for a product that is non-comedogenic which simply means it won’t block your pores, one of the causes of pimples.

By paying attention to the terms above and shopping for the right sunscreen, you can help keep your skin safe.

Sinclair Broadcasting is committed to the health and well-being of our viewers, which is why we’re introducing Sinclair Cares. Every month we’ll bring you information about the “Cause of the Month,” including topical information, education, awareness and prevention.

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