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Sunscreen 101: Understanding SPF, UVA, UVB, PA+, and More

by Voices Wellness 16 Jun 2021
Photo: Unsplash

Learn to protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using the right sunscreen for your activities. By SAMANTHA FRANCIS.

Summer is here and if you’re living in a tropical city like Singapore, you’re probably already used to the constant heatwave. While wearing sunscreen is essential during the warmer months, it ought to be a year-long habit to protect the skin from sunburn and damage. Dr. Ker Khor Jia, a dermatologist at Gleneagles Hospital, says: “Even on cloudy days, harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays can penetrate through clouds to reach you through cars and building windows.” Moreover, long-term sun exposure can speed up ageing and potentially lead to skin cancer.

Spoilt for choice by all the sunscreen options in the market? You’re not alone. Research and development in the beauty industry have led to an acceleration of new and innovative products. This has given rise to reef-safe formulas that don’t affect the natural environment, separate face and body sunscreens, and physical versus chemical sunscreens.

To understand what exactly you’re slathering on your skin, here’s a quick lowdown on the sunscreen lexicon you might’ve encountered.

Photo: Unsplash


This stands for Sun Protector Factor—a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays. For example, applying an SPF50 sunscreen would take the sun 50 times longer to burn your skin as opposed to not wearing sunscreen.

PA+ rating

This symbol is seen on some sunscreen formulas and refers to a rating system developed in Japan to indicate how much UVA protection is offered. To put it simply, PA+ comes with some UVA protection, whereas PA++++ gives the skin a much higher level of defense.


Ultraviolet B rays damage the outermost layers of the skin, causing both sunburns and melanoma. They are responsible not only for premature skin ageing but also for most skin cancers.


Ultraviolet A rays are more penetrating than UVB rays and they affect cells deeper in the skin, causing indirect damage to DNA. Plus, they cause the skin to age prematurely, resulting in visible wrinkles, and are tied to some skin cancers.

Photo: Unsplash

Physical sunscreen

As its name suggests, physical sunscreens sit directly on the skin to create a protective barrier to prevent rays from penetration. Minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are common active ingredients used.

Chemical sunscreen

 Meanwhile, chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin through a variety of chemical ingredients. They work to absorb UV rays, convert them to heat, and then release them from the body. Common ingredients used include oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate.

Oral sunblock

Designed to boost protection against harmful UV damage, oral sunblocks are made with strong antioxidants to combat free radicals caused by UV light’s interaction with our body cells. They’re not meant to replace topical sunscreen but rather recommended for consumption as complementary protection. 


If you regularly do water sports like swimming, diving, or surfing, reef-free sunscreens are a good option. Most of them do not contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, 4-methyl benzylidene, and butyl-paraben—these ingredients when washed into the ocean, are harmful to coral and marine life.


This label is typically used on water-resistant sunscreens, which ensures SPF protection even when the user is sweaty or wet for up to 80 minutes.

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