Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. This scary statistic is caused by two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation contained within the sun’s light: UVA and UVB rays. There are several ways to protect your skin from this damaging radiation. Sunscreen is one of many options and is extremely effective when used with other means of sun protection (hats, sunglasses, UV-rated clothing).
To understand how sunscreens protect you, it’s important to first answer two questions. What is sunscreen made of and what are the active ingredients in sunscreen? The answers to these questions depend on which type of sunscreen you decide to use. You probably don’t know that sunscreen can work in different ways as most people buy a bottle of sunscreen and lather it on without putting any thought into it.
I’ll break it down for you so you can be better informed next time you’re buying sunscreen. First, active ingredients in sunscreen come in two forms: chemical and physical (also called mineral).
What chemicals are in sunscreen?
You’ve probably never heard of avobenzone, octisalate, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. I struggle to even pronounce some of them but at one time or another you would have used at least one of them! These few ingredients are the most common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens. They work by absorbing the UV radiation before it reaches your skin. Although some are safe to use, there are some major concerns about chemicals such as oxybenzone because it is absorbed into the skin and can result in an allergic reaction or even hormone disruption.
Physical sunscreen ingredients include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These ‘mineral’ sunscreens work by reflecting and scattering the sun’s damaging rays away from the skin. When people think of physical sunscreens they think of a lifeguard at the beach with a white nose. This is a great example, but modern physical sunscreens look very similar to chemical sunscreens and actually work better than chemical sunscreens by stopping more light across more of the UV spectrum.
Understanding how sunscreen ingredients react with the body, what irritates your skin and what you’ll be doing when using a sunscreen helps you choose a sunscreen that is best for you. Do your research, read the active ingredients on sunscreen labels, and keep in mind that not all sunscreens are created equal.
Do we need to put all this thought into protecting our skin? Absolutely! Different activities and different sun intensities determine what sunscreen is best for your needs. A lifeguard is going to need a different sunscreen than parents attending their child’s soccer game. SimplySunSafe mostly recommends physical sunscreens because they do the best job of blocking the sun’s damaging rays and tend to last longer on the shelf and on the skin. Hybrids that include both chemical and physical sunscreens are also acceptable so long as they don’t include nasty ingredients like oxybenzone.
If you are traveling out of the country, you should know that sunscreen ingredient guidelines vary across the globe. Some sunscreen ingredients that are available in Europe are banned from the United States because sunscreen is regulated by the Food & Drug administration (FDA) in the United States.
To help you make sure your sunscreen is safe wherever you are, you can use the table below to check your sunscreen’s active ingredients are FDA approved and what section of the UV spectrum they protect against:
|Chemical Active Ingredients||UV Blocked|
|Aminobenzoic acid (PABA)||UVB|
|Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX)||UVA2|
|Ensulizole (Phenylbenzimiazole Sulfonic Acid)||UVB|
|Meradimate (Menthyl Anthranilate)||UVA2|
|Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)||UVB|
|Octisalate (Octyl Salicylate)||UVB|
|Physical Active Ingredients||UV Blocked|
|Titanium Dioxide||UVB, UVA2|
|Zinc Oxide||UVB, UVA2, UVA1|
So which sunscreen ingredients should you use?
I only recommend (and buy for myself) sunscreens with active ingredients that offer both UVA and UVB protection. These are known as broad spectrum sunscreens. If you look at the table, both chemical and physical ingredients can protect from both UVA and UVB rays when used in the right combination. Physical active ingredients cause the least amount of skin irritation and zinc oxide is known as the best active ingredient as it single handedly protects against the entire dangerous UV spectrum.
For this reason, SimplySunSafe mainly recommends physical, broad spectrum sunscreens that use zinc oxide as an active ingredient. Using a sunscreen that has all of these features will ensure you’re getting the sun protection you need. If you’re looking for a sunscreen for a specific purpose, check out our various buyer’s guides or search the site for your specific need.
Gone are the days when you choose a sunscreen based only on its SPF! Now that you know what sunscreen is made of you are armed with knowledge most people are missing. So next time you’re buying a sunscreen you can read the label with confidence, knowing how the sunscreen will work and whether the ingredients are safe to use.