Poolside scene with sunbathers and swimmers

To ensure the best sun protection, it’s important to know exactly what you’re getting when you pick up a bottle of sunscreen. “Much of what you see on the 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. Here, what some of the most common terms on your sunscreen bottle really mean.

This stands for “sun protection factor.” It measures only how well the sunscreen protects from ultraviolet B rays (the ones primarily responsible for sunburn). SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent.

Seeing this term—which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration—on the label means the product contains ingredients that help to shield the skin from UVB and UVA rays. (Ultraviolet A rays accelerate age-related skin damage and largely contribute to the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.)

According to FDA standards, this means the sunscreen has been tested and will maintain its SPF level for 40 minutes while swimming or sweating. “Very water-resistant” means it maintains its SPF level for 80 minutes. However, you still need to reapply sunscreen when you get out of the water.

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Protects Against Aging and Skin Cancer
This is not a regulated term, but it’s safe to say that if used properly, any broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher will help to protect you from skin aging and skin cancer. Proper use involves applying enough sunscreen—a teaspoon per body part, such as the torso or a leg—reapplying it every 2 hours you’re in the sun, and using it in combination with other sun-protection measures.

You’ll find this on products marketed to people who want a sunscreen that stays put during vigorous outdoor activity. The term isn’t regulated by the FDA.

Baby or Kid
There are dozens of sunscreens that manufacturers say are designed just for babies and kids, but there is no FDA regulation that governs who can use these terms and how. You’ll often see this label on sunscreens designed to be less irritating to young skin—by virtue of containing only mineral active ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide).

Dermatologist Tested or Approved
This is a marketing term that is unregulated—and mostly meaningless. A dermatologist may have been consulted about the product or tried it, but there’s no way for the consumer to know what, if any, kind of testing was performed.

The sunscreens below are top performers from Consumer Reports’ tests. 

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Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.