People are just realising what the letters, numbers and symbols on sun cream bottles really mean

The SUN cream bottles are covered in letters, numbers and fun symbols – but what does it all mean?

Here we decode the jargon to keep you safe this summer.

To protect yourself from harmful rays, it is important to wear sunscreen regularly


To protect yourself from harmful rays, it is important to wear sunscreen regularlyPhoto credit: Getty
Bottles bear multiple numbers, letters, and symbols that indicate how much protection they offer


Bottles bear multiple numbers, letters, and symbols that indicate how much protection they offerPhoto credit: Darren Fletcher

However, it is important to remember that no matter how much protection a product promises to offer, nothing can offer 100 percent security.

Sunscreen should be used along with other precautions like hats, sunglasses, and plenty of time in the shade.

If you don’t take the right measures, it can result in quite painful burns and increase your risk of developing skin cancer, Cancer Research UK warns.

sun protection factor

SPF – or sun protection factor – indicates how well a product protects against sunburn.

The number below indicates how long it would take for the sun’s UV rays to redden your skin if you use the product exactly as directed, compared to not wearing it at all.

The higher the number, the longer the protection lasts.

For example, if you normally get sunburned after 10 minutes in the sun, a lotion with SP15 will protect you 15 times longer, up to 150 minutes.

However, that’s just an estimate, and according to Nivea, factors like skin color, time of year, weather conditions, and geography can change things.

Sun protection factors are rated on a scale from two to over 50.

The NHS recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.

This allows around three percent of UVB radiation to penetrate the skin, while sun protection factor 50 allows around two percent.

This might seem like a small difference, but it can be huge on certain skin types.

Chemical vs. mineral

There are two types of sunscreens – chemical and mineral.

According to the British Skin Foundation (BSF), products with chemical active ingredients absorb UV rays, while mineral (also called physical) ones reflect them.

Another name for mineral sunscreen is sunblock because it creates a physical barrier that sits against the skin.

Different SPF levels block different UVB rays:

  • Sun protection factor 15 – 93 percent
  • Sun protection factor 30 – 96.7 percent
  • Sun protection factor 50 – 98 percent
  • Sun protection factor 100 – 99 percent

UVB rays can never be completely filtered out, which is why it is important to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.

Chemical lotions should also be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going out as it takes time for them to be fully absorbed by the skin.


The sun emits two types of ultraviolet rays that are harmful to skin: UVA and UVB.

Both cause different types of damage, and not all products protect against it in the same way.

UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays and cause long-term damage such as wrinkles, sagging skin, sun spots, leathery skin and other signs of aging.

They are present at all times of the day and can penetrate clouds and even glass.

Bottles carry a UVA rating of five.

This indicates the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by that particular sunscreen compared to UVB.

The higher the number, the better the protection.

The NHS recommends always using sunscreen with at least a four star rating or the European certification mark.

The three letters in a circle indicate that it conforms to the EU standard.


UVB rays damage the surface of the skin and are the main cause of sunburn.

While they don’t penetrate as deeply as UVA rays, they are just as harmful.

They play a major role in the development of skin cancer, including melanoma.

Broad spectrum

Another term to look for when choosing your sunscreen is “broad spectrum.”

The term means that the product offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

It’s not always on the label, but it’s an easy way to find a bottle that offers adequate protection.

PA rating

PA levels can sometimes be found on international sunscreens, particularly those from parts of Asia.

This is another way to assess UVA protection, says the BSF.

The letters PA stand for “degree of protection” and are followed by a series of plus signs – PA+, PA++, PA+++ and PA++++.

PA+ offers some UVA protection, while PA++++ offers extremely high UVA protection.


No sunscreen is 100 percent waterproof, but some claim it’s “water resistant.”

Manufacturers may use the term when tests show that the SPF drops by up to 50 percent after two 20-minute periods of immersion.

But even after staying in the water, drying with a towel or sweating, it is important to reapply it.


Finally, on the back of the bottle of each sunscreen is a symbol that looks like an open jar, next to the letter “M”.

This indicates how many months the product can be kept after opening.

It is important for any cosmetic product, but especially for sunscreen products, as it may no longer provide protection after the expiration date.

For example, 12M would mean your lotion will last for a year after you remove the cap, while 6M means you can use it for the next six months.

The BSF said: “Check the expiration date of your sunscreen as sunscreen that is out of date is no longer as effective and you risk sunburn.”

For your security, it’s a good idea to write the date you opened a bottle on the back with a felt-tip pen.

Tips on how to use sunscreen properly

It is important to use sunscreen correctly to achieve the level of protection stated on the bottle.

To achieve this, Cancer Research UK recommends that you:

  • Make sure you’re applying enough sunscreen – people often wear far less sunscreen than is necessary. Apply sunscreen evenly and thickly. Make sure you apply enough sunscreen if you apply a spray or roller.
  • Apply sunscreen regularly throughout the day, including “once a day” and “water resistant” products. Sunscreen can rub off, sweat or wash off – even if it’s supposed to be waterproof. It is especially important to apply more after drying. Reapplying will also help prevent missing patches of skin.
  • Check the expiry date of your sunscreen before using it. Look for a symbol with the letter M and a number that indicates how many months the sunscreen will keep after opening.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK.

At least 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and the disease kills more than 2,500 people each year.

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UV radiation is the most important preventable cause of skin cancer.

Severe sunburns, especially in childhood, increase the risk of developing it later in life.

Experts recommend at least SPF 30 and a four-star UVA rating


Experts recommend at least SPF 30 and a four-star UVA ratingPhoto credit: Nivea

Aila Slisco

Aila Slisco is a Dailynationtoday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Aila Slisco joined Dailynationtoday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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