Sunscreen jargon, explained: A glossary of all the SPF-related terms that you need to know about

Sunscreen jargon, explained: A glossary of all the SPF-related terms that you need to know about

Sun shield

Text: Emily Heng

Image: Instagram | @supergoop
Image: Instagram | @gelcream

There has been a staggering number of conversations circling SPF as of late. We bring to your attention the countless debates with regard to reef-safe formulas; comprehensive arguments centered around physical versus chemical variants; as well as disputes over the necessity behind separate face and body sunscreens. It begs the question: why can't we just slather on some sunscreen and call it day? Pfft, yeah, we wish.

You see: an advent in technology has brought upon progress in terms of product texture, efficacy, and capabilities — meaning that the beauty industry has grown past one-size-fit-all, white-cast-causing offerings that stink of zinc. Huzzah! It's a positive movement as any, but it also means that the skincare lexicon has expanded significantly.

We're talking all-new terminology and vernacular that might prove confusing to even the most experienced of skincare savants, ranging from the significance behind numerical values (SPF100?) to ingredient nasties (see: oxybenzone). And so, we've come up with an inclusive guide to catch ya up to speed. Sun's up, pens out — let's get to it.

First things first: What does SPF stand for?

Sun protection factor. More specifically, it refers to the protection you receive from UVB rays. The assigned numeral (SPF30/SPF50), on the other hand, stands for how much solar energy is required to cause a sunburn on your protected complexion. So, SPF50 will shield you from 50 units of sun rays, and so on.

What about the PA+ rating, then?

While this isn't found on all sunscreen formulas, there are some offerings that have this symbol on the product packaging. It is actually a rating system developed in Japan to denote how much UVA protection it offers. So, PA+ provides some UVA protection, while PA++++ grants an extremely high defense. The more +, the better.


So, what are UVA and UVB rays...?

We're glad you asked. Think of them as two separate type of ultraviolet rays that come from the sun. UVB rays are the ones responsible for causing sunburns and melanoma; while excessive exposure to UVA rays may lead to wrinkle formation and premature skin ageing. UVA rays also penetrate more deeply into the skin, and plays a part in skin cancer formation too, with its effects taking a longer time to show up as compared to UVB rays. According to a study by the University of Iowa, the sun emits approximately 500 more times UVA than there are UVB rays. In sum: your sunscreen has got to safeguard you from both. Capiche?

How about chemical and physical sunscreens?

Think of them as two types of sunscreens, both of which utilise different ingredients and technologies. Chemical formulas protect you from UV rays by absorbing them through an array of chemical ingredients; physical SPF, on the other hand, forms an actual barrier to prevent rays from penetrating the skin entirely. It is best that you pick one according to your preferences and needs — it should be noted, however, that there are certain skin experts who have found that chemical sunscreens can lead to complexion irritation and hormonal disruption. There hasn't been quite enough scientific evidence to form a conclusive statement from current investigations, so take from it what you will.

What about terms such as reef-safe, sports, or sand-resistant?

Reef-safe is a relatively new entrant to the beauty lexicon. They simply refer to sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone; octinoxate; octocrylene; 4-methylbenzylidene; and butyl-paraben. Apparently, these harmful ingredients are often washed off our sunscreen-slathered skin and into the ocean, which is actually harmful to coral and certain wildlife.

The sports label is commonly used to describe water-resistant products — where the SPF stays on even after test subjects are doused in sweat and water for a full 80 minutes. Same goes for sand-resistant, where product creators have designed their product to cling on despite exposure to fine sand grains.