Sun Protection: SPF, UVA, UVB, PA+++… What does it all mean!?

Hello beauties! I’m sure many of us have heard that it is important to regularly wear sunscreen to protect our skin from premature aging without thinking about it much. But did you know that even though your face lotion may say SPF30 on it, it doesn’t mean that you are fully protected? I personally never spent much time dwelling on the topic of sun protection.  This all changed when I heard that the FDA was changing the regulations on product labeling because “SPF” was considered an imperfect measure of protection.  I decided to spend some time looking into what it all means and wanted to share what I have learned with you.

Let’s start with some basics.

First up is SPF. SPF stands for sun protection factor. The number associated with the SPF is the number of times longer that you will be protected from burning than you would be without sunscreen. For example, if you usually get a sunburn in 10 minutes when outside unprotected, you should not burn for 150 minutes if you are wearing an SPF15 product. The important thing to note is that this only refers to your protection time from UVB rays, with no specific expectation for your protection level from UVA rays. Here is an example….

Click any photo for a larger view

Ok – so what’s the difference between UVB & UVA rays and why should I care?

UVB rays are Ultraviolet B rays. I’m sure you’re thinking “OK, Dorea. Real helpful – that doesn’t tell me anything!” 😉 Well… Ultraviolet B rays are short waves and are the primary cause of sunburn.  These rays tend to damage the more superficial layers of the skin and are what most sunscreens historically claimed protection from.

For protection from premature aging however, it is important to pay attention to UVA or Ultraviolet A rays. These are long waves that are less intense than UVB rays, but more prevalent and can penetrate through clouds and glass (meaning if you work in an office with windows, you are still being exposed!). These rays reach the deeper layers of skin and play a larger role in premature aging, & wrinkling (yikes!).

Excessive exposure either type of UV ray (or both) is thought to contribute to and/or cause mutations leading to skin cancer!

So what does PA+++ mean? PA is a Japanese rating system in place before the new regulations that was a way to show how mubh protection you are receiving from UVA rays. You will see either PA+, PA++, or PA+++ on the label, with more + signs meaning a higher level of UVA protection. I use the Shiseido Eye protection eye cream below during the day because that is the first place I have started to see lines!!

This system has not been approved by the FDA, so if you want to be sure of the level of protection you are getting, look for something labeled “broad spectrum.”

Because SPF historically only indicated the amount of time that the user would be protected from UVB rays, new regulations will make it clear the level of protection you are receiving. Products will be required to label their packaging as  “Broad Spectrum SPF __” to indicate protection from both UVA & UVB rays. another important thing to note is that a product labeled Broad Spectrum & SPF 15 or higher can help reduce risk of cancer and early aging. SPF 2-14 has only been shown to help prevent sunburn.

Another new regulation on sunscreen labeling that will be going into effect is that products can no longer be labeled higher than SPF50. The reason is because SPF15 already blocks 92% of UVB rays, SPF30 blocks 97%, and SPF50 is only about 1-2% more effective than SPF30 and after that the benefit is little to none.

One more new thing… Companies can no longer claim their sunscreen is waterproof since it stands to reason that it will wash off at some point! For sunscreen meant to be worn while active, it will be labeled as “water resistant” and state the amount of time you can go without reapplying (either 40 or 80 minutes).

These new regulations for determining what can be considered “broad spectrum” protection  became effective on June 18th, 2012. To avoid a sunscreen shortage during the summer months, the FDA extended the compliance deadlines until December 17, 2012, so we should see the new labeling on products by the end of the year at the latest.

So do you remember all of that?? No? I don’t blame you! Here is the bottom line on what you want to look for to get the best protection from both UVB & UVA rays: Broad spectrum SPF 15 or higher (I look for 30).

Here are some examples:

I hope this has been helpful!!

For sources or more information, see below:

Also here is the FDA Q&A site for new sunscreen requirements:

10 thoughts on “Sun Protection: SPF, UVA, UVB, PA+++… What does it all mean!?

  1. The Shiseido eye cream uses octinoxate, and it is toxic to the skin, creating free radicals and disrupts your hormones.. The safest by far would be zinc and titanium oxide.

  2. Hi, thank you for your clarification. I’m from Asia and I always wondered why American brands sunscreen doesn’t show PA+ signs, now it all makes senses.

    Another question tho, how can I tell how much PA+ level that my broad spectrum sunscreen is equivalent to? is the higher SPF number the better protection?

    I work in office and drives to work/home everyday, since I don’t get exposed directly under sunlight much, so my most concern is the sunscreen’s ability to block the UVA. Is there any indicator on the ingredient list or labeling of the PA+ level that we are getting? Thank you!

    1. Hi there! Thanks for reading!

      If I am reading your question right, then yes… If the label says broad spectrum than the SPF rating refers to both the UVB and UVA level of protection. The higher the “broad spectrum” SPF, the better level of UVA protection.

      Hope that helps! If you have any other questions or comments, let me know! 🙂

    1. Yay! So glad I could help… One thing I do every day whether I am wearing makeup or not is put on a Broad Spectrum sunscreen/face lotion. So important for keeping skin healthy!

      What cream are you using that has a PA++ rating?

  3. you are amazing! I was worried that my “broad specturm” clinique city girl sunscreen/primer wasnt giving me any UVA protection (which is what I wear it for everyday as I am in the UK = no sun most of the time) just because it didnt say PA+++. Now it makes a LOT more sense!!

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