It can be tough to keep your sunscreen facts straight when you’re studying bottles of lotions and sprays in the sun-care aisle.

“There are still a lot of misconceptions among consumers about what sunscreen can and cannot do,” says Macrene Alexiades, M.D., Ph.D., an associate clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine.

But Beth Jonas, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association that represents the sunscreen industry, notes that “according to the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, all claims made about the products—whether directly on the label and packaging or in other formats or mediums—must be validated.”  

While that may be true, some common terms found on sunscreen labels don’t necessarily mean what consumers often think they do. We asked experts to decode the labels to help you make the best choice.

Broad Spectrum

In a 2016 national survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center of 1,000 sunscreen users, 32 percent said they thought “broad spectrum” meant that the product protected their skin all day without reapplying.

“No sunscreen can do that,” Alexiades says. “In fact, the minute you put it on, the ingredients start to break down and deactivate, which is why you need to reapply every 2 hours.”

What broad spectrum does mean is that a sunscreen does more than prevent sunburn. It must shield your skin from both types of the sun’s rays: UVA (which cause aging and skin cancer) and UVB (which cause burning and contribute to skin cancer).

In addition, to carry a broad-spectrum label, FDA requires that the sunscreen have at least an SPF 15 and that it pass a test called the “critical wavelength test” that measures its UVA coverage. That’s a pass/fail test, however, and broad-spectrum sunscreens have varying levels of UVA protection, which is why Consumer Reports uses a test that measures the degree of UVA protection.

Dermatologist Tested/Dermatologist Recommended

“When consumers see ‘dermatologist tested’ on sunscreen products, it means that companies have engaged clinical professionals in the product development process and testing,” Jonas says. “In other instances, claims of ‘dermatologist recommended’ may be based on surveys of professionals who are asked unaided which brands they recommend.”

However, companies have a lot of leeway in using this and similar terms, such as pediatrician recommended (see below). The FTC requires such claims to be truthful and not misleading, but they aren’t regulated. For example, there is no standard test a manufacturer must perform or minimum number of professionals they must survey to use the term. “It’s pure marketing,” says Darrel Rigel, M.D., a clinical professor of dermatology at the NYU School of Medicine.

Facial vs. Full-Body Formula

There’s no reason you can’t slather your body in a sunscreen that says “for face” on the label. And other than the potential for causing breakouts, there’s no reason you can’t use a “full-body” sunscreen on your face.

“Those words on the label are just a marketing tool,” Alexiades says. “The formulations may be slightly different to make one that’s more cosmetically elegant for use on the face, but from a sunscreen perspective, they are exactly the same.” 


Both “fragrance-free” and “unscented” have meaning, but they don’t mean the same thing. An unscented product can still contain certain “masking scents” used to cover up the sometimes unpleasant smell of cosmetic ingredients.

“But if the product says ‘fragrance free,’ it can’t contain any masking scents or any other type of fragrance,” Rigel says. That makes it the better choice for anyone whose skin is sensitive to fragrance. Fragrance-free products may still have an odor, however.


You’ll sometimes find this term on sunscreens that contain only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as active ingredients. In Consumer Reports testing, the “natural” sunscreens we’ve included have consistently performed less well than those with chemical active ingredients.  


This is an unregulated but potentially meaningful term often found on sunscreen formulas intended for the face.

“It means that it doesn’t cause blackheads or whiteheads, but there’s no formal testing process for it,” Rigel says. Typically, a product with this label will have a light, nongreasy feel to it.

Pediatrician Recommended/Pediatrician Tested

This claim implies an extra level of safety, yet the FDA doesn’t require children’s sunscreens to meet higher safety standards or be more effective than products for adults. Manufacturers use the same active ingredients, sometimes in the same concentrations, in both types. There’s no reason a child can’t use an adult sunscreen and vice versa.  


This is one of the most confusing sunscreen terms. The acronym stands for sun protection factor, and it’s important to remember that no matter how high the SPF number, no sunscreen blocks 100 percent of the sun’s damaging rays—and none maintain their effectiveness for more than a couple of hours without reapplication. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30, and many dermatologists suggest going even higher.

“People commonly underapply sunscreen by approximately 50 percent,” Alexiades says. That means your SPF 30 may be protecting you more like an SPF 15. An SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UV rays, SPF 30 blocks 96 percent, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent.  


While this isn’t a regulated term, it can be of some value to the consumer. Products with this label claim are usually formulated to be less greasy and less likely to run into your eyes when you sweat. But there’s no required testing to back up these claims.


This term, along with sweat-resistant, has a very specific meaning. The FDA has a test to determine whether a sunscreen qualifies as water- or sweat-resistant. (No sunscreen is completely waterproof or sweatproof, so the FDA doesn’t allow those claims to be made on a sunscreen label.) The FDA standard means that the sunscreen retains its SPF value after you’ve been swimming or sweating for 40 or 80 minutes. (The label will indicate which time period it’s been tested for.)