Sun Tanning Questions

What Do the Numbers Mean on Sunscreen? (Explained)

Written by: Anastasija

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If you’ve purchased sunscreen recently, or any product containing some sort of sun protection, you may be wondering what all the different numbers actually mean, as there tend to be lots of them and, while some may be obvious, others may be a little unclear. Here are the answers!

SPF level

Firstly, perhaps the most important value you’ll find on the sunscreen packaging is the one which represents the SPF, which stands for the ‘Sun Protection Factor’. We will talk a little bit more about what this does, and what you should be looking for, but essentially, it’s a measure of how much your sunscreen will protect you when you’re exposed to the Sun, and you’ll want to choose different numbers for different purposes or reasons.

Sunscreen in winter by Anastasija Thirsty for tan

When you purchase your sunscreen, it’s good to have a target SPF in mind so that you know exactly what you’re looking for, and that you’ll be getting the most out of your product, which is why it’s important to know about the correct circumstances and occasions to wear a certain SPF of sunscreen. This is also a value which you should always be able to see on the packaging, almost like the product is actually advertising it, as it determines how safe you’ll be when exposed to the Sun.

Also read: What SPF Should I Use on My Face? (3 Best Sunscreens)

Shelf life

Although it’s not spoken about very often in the media or other sources of information about skincare, sunscreen, just like most other skincare products, has a shelf life. This means that there is a certain period of time for which your sunscreen can be kept and used safely (and effectively) before it expires and no longer works like it used to. This is similar to the shelf life of a food product, and the concept is just the same.

sunscreen information by Anastasija Thirsty for tan

Usually, you’ll be able to determine the shelf life of your product by finding the small toiletry packaging-shaped symbol (this is usually a pot with a lid or a tube) which will also have a number written either inside or to the side of it. This number, usually a 6, 12 or 18, is the number of months the sunscreen will last for after opening it.

Obviously, shelf life isn’t quite as crucial as the SPF, but there is the possibility of your sunscreen turning ineffective, and even causing potential irritation for your skin when you use it after this given period of time. If you’re still interested in, or worried about, this, you can always take a look into the expiry process for sunscreens, and maybe even discover something new!

Also read: Why Does Sunscreen Burn My Face? (7 Problems Explained)

Number of water resistance minutes

If you’ve ever been shopping for a sunscreen you can wear at the beach, or you’ve been trying to find one for your kids, you may have found it difficult to find one that claims to be definitively water resistant, and there is a reason for this. You may also have experienced, when using a ‘water-resistant’ sunscreen, that it’s not actually very effective at being water resistant, and still requires a fresh application every so often. This is because sunscreens aren’t actually water resistant, or at least not for very long.

The truth is that even the best sunscreens are only water resistant for a certain period of time, and this should be stated somewhere on the product’s packaging. If it is still claiming to be water resistant without any given number of minutes along with it, it’s probably not worth your trust. If there is a number, the most common value is 80, and this means that your sunscreen will be effective for up to 80 minutes after coming into contact with water but will need to be reapplied after that.

Drug facts

The final common number you may see on your sunscreen’s packaging is usually on the back, and it is around the ingredients list. Not all sunscreens do this, but some products do state the approximate percentages of each ingredient, or category of ingredients. You may be wondering why this is useful, but some ingredients, particularly the UV filters, have limits set for how much is allowed in each product by the FDA, and this can be a good way of checking that.

La roche posay sunscreen information by Anastasija Thirsty for tan

It also gives you a good idea of what the main ingredients are, and how much is actually present in the formula to potentially make a difference.

What do the different SPF ratings mean?

One concern that many people have is the SPF they should be using on their skin, as it’s not exactly obvious unless you’ve already done some research about it before buying your product – the packaging doesn’t tend to give you any information other than the number itself. As mentioned earlier, the SPF of a sunscreen (or any other product which has built-in sun protection) is a measure of how protective it is against the Sun’s ultraviolet rays, just like how you might measure a length in centimetres, or a weight in kilograms.

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The topic of which SPF you should be using is very complex, and it really requires its own topic, but you can get a rough idea of some of the figures and the level of protection anyway. Studies have shown that SPF 15 is known to filter out and protect your skin from 93% or UVB rays, whilst SPF 30 is 97% and SPF 50 is 98%. It’s important to note that SPF is only actually a measure of the UVB rays that are filtered out from the Sun so, in order to protect you skin completely, you need to check for UVA protection separately, by choosing a ‘broad-spectrum’ sunscreen, or one that advertises is UVA protection.


What Do the Numbers Mean on Sunscreen pin by thirstyfortan

Final thoughts

While the various different numbers you find on a sunscreen’s packaging can be confusing at first, especially when some are unlabelled or you don’t know what they mean, it’s not too frightening once you know about all of them, and why they’re there. It’s good to know what all of these mean to ensure that your product is right for you, and that you are aware of how to use it properly. Remember, these are some of the most common numbers you’ll find on sunscreens, but this doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily find all of these at once.

About Anastasija

Welcome to my website! I'm Anastasija, and as a redhead with a sensitivity to the sun, I embarked on a quest to find the perfect sunless tanner six years ago.

After extensive research and four years of personal experience, I'm here to share my wealth of tips and tricks for achieving a beautiful, sun-kissed glow.

Whether you're interested in self-tanners, spray tans, or safe sun exposure, this website covers it all.

Join me as I provide valuable insights and guidance for various methods of getting that desired tan.

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