Sunscreen labels explained: here's what the symbols on the packaging mean

Sunscreen labels explained: here's what the symbols on the packaging mean

Many of the icons are a real mystery to consumers, but it is important to understand them in order to use these products properly

Ana de Dios


Thursday, 30 May 2024, 10:01

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With the arrival of the summer heat it is common to go to the beach or to the swimming pool to cool off to cope with the high temperatures. However, in such places we are also more exposed to the sun, which can lead to sunburn or, in the long run, other more serious skin problems. While the use of sunscreens is recommended for all year round, their use is essential at this time of year.

When it comes to buying sunscreen, there are many different types on the market to suit everyone's taste. Some consumers have a preference for creams, others for oils or sprays. However, beyond that, you should also be looking hard at the icons that appear on the packaging. Of course, there are some that we do not recognise at all, and even those that we are more familiar with, we probably don't know what they mean either. It is important to know them well as many of them indicate important information such as the expiry date, whether the product is water-resistant and the level of protection it provides.

What do the symbols on sun protectors mean?

SPF: sun protection factor

SPF stands for sun protection factor and is accompanied by a number on the packaging: typically 10, 15, 30, 50. This indicates the protection it provides against ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) as a guideline. Some people think that this is the number of minutes that the sunscreen has a protective effect on the skin. This is partly true, as some experts have explained that it depends on the skin's natural protection, which can be as little as five minutes up to 10 minutes. So the factor declared on these lotions is the multiplier of those minutes.

UVA symbol

While the SPF indicates protection against ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, the UVA symbol refers to Ultraviolet A radiation. To make sure that the sunscreen also protects against these rays, you should look for the UVA logo inside a circle.

Unfortunately, this is not the only term used to classify UVA. It is also possible to find the acronym PA (Protection Grade of UVA) on some sunscreen products, which divides the levels of protection into: Very High Protection (PA++++), High Protection (PA+++), Moderate Protection (PA++), Low Protection (PA+). Still, in Europe the standardised labelling practise is to apply the UVA symbol.

PAO symbol 

The acronym PAO stands for Period After Opening, so it indicates the expiry date of the product, i.e. the length of time it is guaranteed to maintain all its protective properties once opened. It is worth noting that it is usually accompanied by a picture of an open cosmetic jar with a number inside (e.g. 12M for 12 months).


Reading this, you might mistakenly think that you won't need to re-apply the product, as it is resistant to sea water, chlorine and sweat. However, this actually means that the product provides sustained protection for two short swims of 20 minutes each. You can also find a 'Very water-resistant' version that provides sustained protection for four quick dips of 20 minutes each.

We Care for Seas & Oceans

This is one of the newest symbols and means that its ingredients do not harm the marine ecosystem and are biodegradable.

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