article, skin care

UVA, UVB, SPF, ABCD… are just random letters??? How do I pick a sunscreen?

It’s summertime in the Philippines and sunscreen products are on front display at stores! There are so many different sunscreens with different SPF values, beauty claims, and other gimmicky add-ons that it becomes difficult to pick which bottle or tube to buy. Admittedly, we can end up buying a sunscreen simply based on how cheap it is, or how much of a deal the price is per milliliter or gram.

But are you really getting a product that works and actually protects your skin? Find out what those letters are on your sunscreen bottle and understand more what exactly we’re doing to our skin!

Why sunscreen is important

Everyone needs to use sunscreen, and not just because we can develop skin cancer from the sun’s rays. Yeah, yeah. It sounds like skin cancer is a hyperbolic threat used by our moms to scare us into slathering on white goo for protection. People didn’t have sunscreens before, and they survived… didn’t they? Well, they did; but that’s not the point.

The point is, skin cancer is just one of the outcomes of exposing your skin to harmful rays from the sun. Because it’s so commonly threatened, it has lessened its intensity to scare us all. There are other negative effects of sun exposure. For example, here’s a photo of a truck driver who has 28 years worth of sun damage on the left side of his face:

See the difference?

Daily sun exposure, especially at hours when the sun’s rays are harsh on the skin, delivers damage to the skin. There can be premature skin aging, mild to excessive skin sagging, development of wrinkles and sun spots, among other things. While it may not sound like such a big damage, it’s still important to give skin some TLC. It’s not going to be very helpful if you, for example, have an extensive skin care routine but do not do preventive measures such as putting on sun protection.

And it’s not just during the summer when we should be applying sunscreen. We are exposed to the sun throughout the year (well, maybe except in countries which have little to no sun exposure) so it must be a natural part of our routine to use sunscreens.


“UVA, UVB… that’s just the same,” was what I used to believe. Oh, how wrong I was.

from Coola Sun Care

UVA means ultraviolet A, and it’s a long wave ray that penetrates into the skin’s deepest layer which is the dermis. This is what causes wrinkles, age/sun spots, and premature skin aging. This kind of UV can penetrate glass windows.

UVB means ultraviolet B, and it’s a short wave ray that damages the skin’s surface. This causes sunburn and has a key role in the development of skin cancer. This UV can be blocked by glass windows. The intensity of UVB rays vary depending on the location, season, and time of day (9am-3pm or 10am-4pm are the peak hours).

SPF 15 + SPF 15 is not SPF 30

SPF is a familiar and commonly known abbreviation for Sun Protection Factor. After reading about the differences between UVA and UVB, it won’t be confusing anymore to understand this: SPF indicates the ability of a product to deflect UVB rays. This means that your skin is less likely to be burned (since UVB is the burning ray) with the application of a product with SPF.

The misconception is that SPFs can do math: if I put on a lotion that has SPF 15 and afterwards slather on some sunscreen with SPF 15, then I have complied with the dermatologists’ advice of putting on a minimum of SPF 30. Nope nope nope nope! SPFs do not add up to give you more protection.

Another note, according to the American Academy of Dermatology:

Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. Higher-number SPFs block slightly more of the sun’s rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays. Currently, there is not any scientific evidence that indicates using a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50 can protect you better than a sunscreen with an SPF of 50.

It is also important to remember that high-number SPFs last the same amount of time as low-number SPFs. A high-number SPF does not allow you to spend additional  time outdoors without reapplication. All sunscreens should be applied approximately every two hours or according to time on the label, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating.


Without UVA protection, skin aging can still occur; you’re simply just protecting your skin from burning. Make sure the sunscreen you’re using or will purchase indicates that it is multi/broad spectrum or protects from both UVA and UVB rays to make sure that you’re really protecting yourself from possible damages.

PA and the plus signs

Have you ever seen a sunscreen product that has an SPF rating and a PA with plus signs?

This is actually a Japanese standard for UVA protection, and is short for “Protection Grade from UVA”. These are ratings based on the scores of a product’s UVA protection test.

From Beautyficient:

PA+ means the sunscreen provides some protection against UVA rays
PA++ indicates moderate protection…
PA+++ shows very good protective abilities against UVA rays.

Since UVA causes long term skin damage, it is therefore advisable to go for sunscreens with the highest PA rating

Physical & chemical sunscreens (yes, there are such things!)

This one, I’ve only recently found out when I was researching on which sunscreen brand and variant to buy. I’m attaching a chart below to compare the two types, so we can see more clearly the differences between them.

Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 10.13.34 PM

There are also products that are a hybrid of the two types! So how can you tell if it’s a physical or a chemical sunscreen, or a hybrid?

Physical sunscreens use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the blocking ingredient. If the ingredients indicate any of these two, then it’s a physical sunscreen.

Chemical ones have a longer list:

  • Octylcrylene
  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octisalate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Helioplex
  • 4-MBC
  • Mexoryl SX and XL
  • Tinosorb S and M
  • Uvinul T 150
  • Uvinul A Plus

Lastly, it’s a hybrid if it has characteristics from both types.

I have come across two articles (here and here) which report that chemical sunscreens may be harmful in the long run, as certain ingredients can penetrate into the bloodstream and affect hormones. There aren’t any final words about it yet, but they suggest sticking to physical sunscreens or look for zinc/titanium as the main ingredient.

Next week, I’ll be reviewing the sunscreen that I’m currently using and talk about other sunscreen products that were on my list of options. Stay tuned for that!

American Academy of Dermatology
Coola Sun Care
Skin Cancer Foundation
Elta MD Skincare


5 thoughts on “UVA, UVB, SPF, ABCD… are just random letters??? How do I pick a sunscreen?”

    1. I found out about it recently when I was reading sunscreen recommendations on reddit! People were asking if a product was a physical or chemical type and so I looked more into it. Glad you learned something new, as I was!! 🙂


  1. Lovely article full of information thanks…i personally have used a ton of different sun screens and i have found 1 that allows the skin to absorb the vitamin d that the body requires yet also protects from the UVA and B rays. The best part is that i found no chemicals in it at all, which other sun screens use that would cause my skin to oil faster and actually block my pores from oxygen and producing blackheads, its also a great moisturiser with SPF in it so wow it gives me all i need to go out in the dreadful sun in Egypt

    Liked by 1 person

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