PA ++++ in Sunscreen: What It Means & Why It Matters

When it comes to sun safety, knowledge is power.

Skin cancer statistics and sun safety awareness are frightening, and the scary rise in the rates of melanoma has many of us stocking up on sunscreen—and rightfully so! If you’re looking for ways to keep your skin radiant and safe from the sun’s UV rays, give your sunscreen selection the due diligence it deserves.

With so many products available, it’s important to look for sunscreen and cosmetic products that offer the protection you need, whether you’re lying on the beach on a summer’s day or making your daily commute to the office in the dead of winter. Sun safety is a year-round responsibility, and finding the right products for daily essential skin care to keep your skin protected is crucial.

When it comes to sunscreen, you’re likely familiar with the SPF label. But modern technology and cosmetic advancements have led to further protective substances and rating systems. If you’ve ever looked at a bottle of sunscreen and wondered what exactly some of those ratings stand for, you’re not alone.

Sun protection ratings and labels are meant to inform- and are designed to make it easier to choose the right products for your skin; unfortunately, the vast array of labels, testing stipulations, and regulations can be overwhelming. In recent years, you’ve likely seen a host of products that include a rating that reads “PA+++” and, more recently, “PA++++.”

Take the mystery out of your sunscreen or skin care products and learn about these ratings. So what is PA++++ sunscreen? Let’s decode the meaning behind this important label.

Why Protecting Your Skin is Important

Before we can delve into the mysteries of PA++++ rating systems, it’s important to take a look at why sunscreen and sun protection is so important.

Whether you’re lying on a sunny beach or sledding in the snow, any time you’re outside—regardless of season—your skin is hit with ultraviolet radiation.

You’ve likely experienced a sunburn at least once in your life. Red, sensitive skin that’s swollen to the touch and heat are hallmarks of the average sunburn. If you took a look at your sunburned skin under a microscope, you’d spot damaged skin cells and blood vessels. Repeated sunburns lead to dry, discolored, leathery skin that bruises easily.

While sunburn is an immediate, visible danger of spending too much time in the sun, the damage goes much deeper.

Exposure to UV rays can lead to DNA damage in your skin cells, and this damage can lead to skin cancer. Even if it takes quite a bit of time spent in the sun to tan or burn your skin, exposure to UV rays could be damaging your body’s DNA.

Man putting on sunscreen on the beach with trees and people in the background.

Types of UV Rays

When it comes to Ultraviolet radiation, there are three different categories:

  • UVA rays: This type of radiation penetrates deep into the skin, and may lead to premature skin aging and cancer.
  • UVB rays: This type of radiation is responsible for the color change in your skin after spending time outdoors—your tan or sunburn is a direct result of UVB rays.
  • UVC rays: This type of radiation is completely absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, and won’t reach your skin to cause damage. Luckily, this is one type of UV radiation you don’t need to worry about.

The ultimate goal of sunscreen is to shield your skin against UVA and UVB rays, both of which damage our skin and can cause skin cancer.

How Sunscreen Works

To understand the rating systems used on your favorite products, it’s important to understand how sunscreen protects your skin.

Sunscreens can come in a variety of forms: sprays, gels, wax, lotion, and mineral powders tend to be the most popular options. Sunscreen products are typically made up of a mix of inorganic and organic chemicals.

  • Inorganic chemicals: This includes minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are used in sunscreen to act as a physical sunblock. These ingredients are adept at reflecting UV rays. If you’ve ever seen photos of lifeguards with white noses, you’ve seen these inorganic chemicals. With modern technology, companies have been able to make these particles smaller, so those familiar white stripes are seen less and less.
  • Organic chemicals: This includes ingredients such as oxybenzone or avobenzone. These ingredients are able to absorb UV radiation, then release it from the body as heat.
Shop Our All Natural Sunscreen Products

Sunscreen Rating Systems

In the US, most people are familiar with the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) — your sunscreen or cosmetic’s ability to shield your skin from UVB rays. The SPF number on your sunscreen indicates how long it takes for your skin to burn in the sunlight.

SPF doesn’t give you an exact measurement of time because everyone’s skin is different and burns at different rates. However, it does tell you that it will take x times longer for your sun to burn.

Image of two arrows labeled UVA and UVB going into the layers of the dermis with text that reads, “PA++++ protects against UVA” and  "SPF protects against UVB".

For instance, a product with SPF 20, like this bronzing face primer, would protect your skin from burning for twenty times longer than if you hadn’t worn any sunscreen.

However, it’s important to remember that all sunscreen should be reapplied every few hours regardless of its SPF rating. If you’re going to be sweating or swimming, it’s recommended that you reapply even more frequently–every 40 to 80 minutes.

So if SPF measures a product's ability to block UVB rays, what does PA++++ mean?

PA++++ Sunscreen Meaning

PA stands for Protection Grade of UVA, so PA+ ratings measure a product’s ability to block UVA rays.

You’ll spot PA ratings on a variety of sunscreens, healthy makeup, and skin care products.

Developed in Japan, the PA rating system was adapted from the Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD) method. This test uses UVA radiation to cause a persistent darkening—tanning—of the skin to determine how long it takes for the skin to tan.

In theory, a sunscreen with a PPD rating of 10 should allow an individual to handle 10 times as much UVA exposure. However, PPD values can’t be measured precisely; because there’s no standardized system for evaluating PPD score, various rating systems are used to signal a product’s UVA protection strength.

PPD doesn’t indicate the exact amount of UVA protection a product provides; instead, this test is converted into a country or region’s scoring system.

Only certain countries utilize UVA testing, including Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, and Australia. In Japan, PPD results are grouped and simplified into PA measurements.

These conversions go as follow:

If a product’s PPD = 2 to 4, PA = PA+
If a product’s PPD = 4 to 8, PA = PA++
If a product’s PPD = 8 to 16, PA = PA+++
If a product’s PPD = 16 or higher, PA = PA++++

It’s important to note that not all countries use the same ratings as PPD isn’t standardized.

Ultimately, PA+ means you’ll have some protection from UVA rays, with more plusses indicating a higher level of protection. Currently, the highest level of protection you can get from UVA rays is PA++++.

Because of the way PA sunscreens are categorized, it can be difficult to determine the difference in sun protection; for example, a sunscreen with a PPD of 20 and a sunscreen with a PPD of 40 could both be rated as PA+++ or PA++++, but there's no way to tell which one offers superior protection.

Additionally, there’s no way to discern between the ranges of PPD, so it’s safer to assume that it protects at the lowest PPD. For instance, a sunscreen with PA++++ has a PPD of 16 or higher, but you should assume that it protects at 16. This means that you’re protected 16 times more than you would be without the product.

Graphic with horizontal bar chart showing PA ratings: PA+: 2 - 4 PPD; PA++: 4 to 8 PPD; PA+++: 8 to 16 PPD; PA++++: 16+ PPD.

Here’s an easy guide when shopping for sunscreens and cosmetics that utilize the PA++++ rating: the more plus signs on your product, the better.

Recent Changes to the PA ++++ Rating System

As mentioned, Japan was the first country to start using the PA rating system. It was upgraded to PA ++++ in 2013, with non-Japanese brands following suit in recent years. Unfortunately, not all countries have upgraded to the new rating system and still consider PA+++ as the highest level of UVA protection.

What is Broad Spectrum?

PA++++ sunscreen, meaning it protects you 16 times more than having no sunscreen, only measures UVA rays. On the other hand, SPF only measures UVB rays. Both can lead to premature aging and melanoma, so it’s crucial to determine your level of protection from both UVA and UVB rays when choosing a skincare product.

If the product you’re using offers both UVA and UVB protection, it will be labeled as Broad Spectrum. In the United States, only sunscreens and cosmetics labeled as Broad Spectrum provide protection from both damaging forms of radiation.

Colorescience products offer Broad Spectrum protection to keep your skin safe from sun exposure, while offering complexion-smoothing features and layered coverage.

What is the Best Measure of Sunscreen Effectiveness?

There is no singular measurement of sunscreen effectiveness.

PA++++ sunscreen is the most effective at protecting you from UVA rays, while products with a SPF of 30 or higher are best at protecting you from UVB rays. Ultimately, your product should be broad spectrum if you want as much protection as possible.

It’s also important to note that PA ratings aren’t related to time like SPF, which causes some confusion. Additionally, not all skin tans from sun exposure or at the same rate as another person, so the PA++++ rating can only tell you a general protection level.

Determining both SPF and PA++++ ratings is crucial when choosing a sunscreen skin care product because they dictate different types of protection.

If you see a PA rating and SPF number on your skin care product, it essentially means its broad spectrum.

Broad spectrum doesn’t correlate with a numerical metric for how well it protects you; there’s no PA++++ rating, SPF, or PPD number. However, many brands include these values to help you determine how much protection their products can provide when used as instructed.

Right side of table is labeled PPD with text that reads, “How much UVA exposure an individual should be able to handle.   2 PPD means that the individual should be able to handle double the UVA exposure.” The second table is labeled PA Rating with text that reads, “The U.S. conversion of PPD, expressed in ratings P+ to P++++. 2 to 4 PPD equates to an approximate rating of P+.”

Tips for Sun Protection

Wear sunscreen each and every time you head outside. Follow these sunscreen tips to make sure your skin has the protection it needs.

  1. Reapply your sunscreen: When it comes to sunscreen application, apply at least 20 minutes before heading outside, and be sure to reapply every two to four hours—more often if you plan on swimming or you’re doing a strenuous workout.

  2. Use multiple protection methods: For most of us, the best protection comes through a combination of methods. Wear sunscreen, brush on Colorescience UV protectors, and don layers of clothing to keep your skin protected from the sun’s rays.

  1. Take note of the labels and ratings on your products. Shop for sunscreens and skin care offerings that are labeled with SPF and PA++++ ratings. Look for products designed specifically for the occassion (like this SPF 50 sport stick for hot, sweaty days), and make sure they have the “Broad Spectrum” label to ensure you’re getting the best protection possible.

Your skin deserves to be protected, whether you’re heading to the beach or running errands in the fall. Understanding the way your skin care and cosmetic products protect your skin from sun damage is crucial.

How Do You Know If a Sunscreen Is PA++++?

As PA++++ becomes more popular in the US, you can determine your sunscreen’s level of protection from UVA rays by reading the label. You should see it clearly stated that the sunscreen is PA++++ on the label or somewhere in the online product description. Unfortunately, not all sunscreen brands use the PA rating system.

Close-up of woman holding two sunscreen bottles and looking at ingredients in the aisle of a store.

Instead, you might see SPF and the term “broad spectrum.” Remember, broad spectrum means that your sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays.

The FDA has rules for labeling sunscreen, and products must go through rigorous testing in order to be labeled as broad-spectrum. According to these standards set in 2011, if a product is labeled broad spectrum, its UVA and UVB protection are proportional, and the higher the SPF, the higher the PA rating.

What Else to Look for on a PA++++ Sunscreen Label

Many US companies are adopting the PA++++ rating alongside SPF to help consumers find the best level of protection and provide them with the ability to make informed purchase decisions–especially since sunscreen is essential to your health. When shopping for a PA++++ sunscreen, you should look for the following:

  • Broad spectrum: The term broad spectrum tells you the PA++++ sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB ratings. Since the SPF and PA ratings are proportionate, a higher SPF indicates a higher PA rating.
  • Exact PA rating: Sunscreen brands aren’t required to provide a PA rating in the US, but it’s better if you can find one that does. PA++++ sunscreen provides the best level of protection from harmful UVA rays.
  • SPF level: Knowing how much protection you receive from UVB rays is just as important as a sunscreen’s PA rating. Look for an SPF of 30 or higher for the best level of protection.
  • Safe ingredients: You can check the active ingredients list on the label to determine whether it contains inorganic or organic chemical ingredients. Inorganic chemical sunscreen ingredients work as a reflective barrier while chemicals are absorbed into the skin. Unfortunately, not all chemicals are safe for the skin, and the FDA is now calling into question the safety and effectiveness of these ingredients.
  • Water resistance: Sweat and water can make your sunscreen soak off, rendering it ineffective. If you want to ensure your sunscreen’s protectiveness lasts as long as possible, look for a sunscreen that’s water resistant and will stay on longer.

What Is the Best PA++++ Sunscreen?

Looking for the factors above can help you find the best sunscreen for you. We recommend looking for mineral sunscreen and cosmetics that include safe ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, inorganic chemical ingredients that reflect and scatter UV rays before they’re absorbed into the skin.

A few options for sunscreen with a PA++++ include the following:

Protect Your Skin with Mineral PA++++ Sunscreen

While SPF is an important measurement for understanding how well your sunscreen protects you from harmful UV rays, it doesn’t measure cancer-causing UVA protection. You can only determine how well a product protects your skin from UVA rays by looking at the PA rating on the label and looking for the phrase “broad spectrum.”

Colorescience specializes in skin care that protects you from harmful UVA and UVB rays to keep your skin healthy while you have fun in the sun. Shop our Sunforgettable® Total Protection™ collection today.