What Sunscreen Ingredients to Look For

Learn what sunscreen ingredients to look for and which ones to avoid as well as the difference between sunscreen and sunblock, physical and chemical sunscreen

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Remember when choosing the best sunscreen was easy? You basically decided what SPF you wanted and that was that. 

Ah, the good ole days when common sunscreen products were dangerously simple. Now, apparently, we’ve cranked up the complexity with advances in chemistry and dermatology. Broad-spectrum protection has increased the effectiveness of UV filters. But is the danger of potential toxicity the tradeoff?

The good news is that safe and effective sunscreen options are available.

When it comes to knowing what sunscreen ingredients to avoid and which ones to look for, how do you know what works, what doesn’t and what can protect you from sunburn and skin cancer? As scientists learn more about the effects of light and UV rays on our skin—that even blue light from your phone or computer may warrant using sunscreen—it can be hard to keep up.

Looking at the ingredients list on sunscreen labels, you’re likely to see things like zinc oxide, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate, homosalate, benzophenone and salicylate.

Unless you’re a chemist or a dermatologist, chances of understanding most sunscreen ingredient lists are SPF 0. Maybe they’re chemicals? Maybe they’re some kind of incantation or pig Latin.

All you want to know is what sunscreen ingredients are safe and effective. 

But we’re here to help! Besides a great selection of sunscreens and sunblock, we’ve got you covered when it comes to the most important suntan lotion acronyms, from SPF, FDA and UVA to answering important questions like WTF is PABA?

Sunscreen ingredients 101

Let’s get some common sunscreen FAQs on the table.

What does SPF even mean?

Sun protection factor. Back in simpler sunscreen times, you just chose a higher SPF if you wanted more protection from the sun’s UVB rays.

How do you know what SPF you need?

Take the amount of time it takes you to get a sunburn without any sunscreen or sunblock and multiply that time by the SPF number.

If you normally burn in 10 minutes, SPF 15 should protect you for about 150 minutes, or two and a half hours.

According to dermatologists, SPF 15 should be sufficient unless you have fair skin or a family history of skin cancer.

Does higher SPF matter?

Although it seems like it should, doubling up on the SPF doesn’t mean doubling the protection time. SPF 15 filters about 93% of UVB rays and SPF 30 filters out 97% of those rays. So, in a sense the returns are diminishing. The common caveat against going for the SPF 50 or 100 is that it can give you a false sense of security, thinking you’re as good as under a shade tree, when, well, you’re not.

Be aware of your time in the sun. Take breaks to reapply sunscreen and rehydrate. Wearing protective clothing and even a brimmed hat can reduce your sun exposure and save you some skin damage from UV radiation.

What is broad-spectrum sunscreen?

The two types of UV rays are UVA and UVB, both of which cause skin damage, accelerating skin aging as well as increasing your risk of melanoma and other skin cancers. UVA penetrates more deeply into the skin despite not causing sunburn. SPF rating does not apply to UVA rays, making it important to find a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which helps protect you from both kinds of UV radiation.

This is where choosing the right sunscreen ingredients becomes important. These ingredients include benzophenones such as oxybenzone, cinnamates such as octyl methyl cinnamate and cinoxate, sulisobenzone, salicylates, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone and ecamsule.

What’s the difference between physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen?

Physical sunscreen is sunblock. It sits on the skin and creates a barrier against ultraviolet rays. These are often visible as they leave a white cast when applied. Physical sunscreen or sunblock ingredients often include zinc oxide or titanium oxide, and are typically safer for sensitive skin.

Chemical sunscreen penetrates the skin and absorbs UV rays before they can damage the skin. The most common ingredients include avobenzone, oxybenzone and PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid).

What the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

As described above, sunblock is a physical sunscreen using zinc oxide or titanium oxide to keep the sun’s rays from reaching the skin.

Sunscreen uses chemicals such as avobenzone, oxybenzone and PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) to absorb UV rays.

Okay, then what are the best sunscreen ingredients?

Zinc oxide, oxybenzone, octinoxate and associates: the good, the bad and the environmentally unfriendly.

Here’s the tea on sunscreen ingredients. It’s a matter of how you weigh the information available against your needs.

  • Do you have sensitive skin? Avoid oxybenzone.
  • Are you going to be in or near water that supports a coral reef? Avoid oxybenzone, octinoxate, zinc oxide
  • Are you breastfeeding or planning to donate blood? Avoid oxybenzone.

Some ingredients are a good fit in some ways and a possible deal breaker in other contexts. Although some ingredients are potentially more harmful and/or less effective than others, the bottom line is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

While some ingredients may be safe for people, not all ingredients are safe for the environment, specifically for any coral reef in the area, which are vital to sustaining the aquatic ecosystems. For various reasons, some ingredients have been widely used in Europe but have been banned or simply not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has reported that in addition to mineral sunscreen, only zinc oxide and titanium oxide — just 2 of the 16 active ingredients commonly found in commercial over-the-counter sunscreens — are “generally recognized as safe and effective.”

Avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule, four of the active ingredients often found in chemical sunscreens, were found to be “systemically absorbed” into the skin. Oxybenzone has been found in breast milk, blood plasma and urine. Research still needs to be done to determine the potential toxicity levels of these ingredients.

The safe bet is to stick with physical sunblock ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide, but even those have some downsides for people with sensitive skin and for the environment.

Ultimately, as dermatologist Kanade Shinkai said, fears about the possible toxicity of chemical sunscreens should not keep you from “protecting your skin against the known dangers of sunlight.” UV exposure is proven to be a major risk factor for developing skin cancer. “And sunscreen is highly effective to prevent skin cancer,” Shinkai said.For more detailed information, check with Consumer Reports.

Pro Tips:

Use sunscreen as directed

It’s extremely important to use whatever suntan lotion, sunscreen, or sunblock you choose exactly as instructed.

Protect yourself from UV exposure with more than sunscreen

Going big on SPF alone can still mean going home with more sunburn and long-term skin damage than you might expect. According to dermatologist Dr. Steven Q. Wang, “It’s important not to rely on high-SPF sunscreens alone. No single method of sun defense can protect you perfectly. Sunscreen is just one vital part of a strategy that should also include seeking shade and covering up with clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses.”

Got a nasty sunburn? It happens to the best of us. No worries, though – goPuff has you covered. With soothing aloe vera gel. Some Tylenol might not hurt, either. Above all, make sure you’re prepared for next time with the right sunscreen for you. Whether you’re enjoying a day at the beach or a great staycation, grab some snacks and drinks for when you take a breather in the shade.

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