Choosing A Sunscreen: What Ingredients To Look For

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

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Remember when choosing the best sunscreen was easy? You simply chose an SPF based on whether it had to be water-resistant and that was that. 

Now the industry has cranked up the complexity with advances in chemistry and dermatology, and it’s hard to keep up. The market offers countless options and other cosmetics, from serums to foundations, including SPF. Where do you begin? 

Start with the sunscreen label you want to buy, but only once you’ve had a chance to read up on what all of the terminologies means.

When looking at labels, you’re likely to see words like zinc oxide, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate, homosalate, benzophenone, and salicylate. Unless you’re a chemist or a dermatologist, your chances of understanding most sunscreen ingredient lists are zero. 

That’s why we’re here to help. We’ll help you understand the most important sunscreen acronyms and active ingredients, and we’ll even help figure out which kind is best for your skin to take some of the guesswork out of deciding.

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What does SPF mean?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. Back in simpler sunscreen times, you would just choose a higher SPF if you wanted more protection from the sun’s UV-B rays. Now we know more, and some lower SPFs may provide enough protection for most people. 

What SPF do you need?

According to dermatologists, SPF 15 should provide sufficient protection against the sun unless you have fair skin or a family history of skin cancer.

Does higher SPF matter?

Although it seems like it should, a higher SPF doesn’t necessarily pay out in longer protection times. For example, SPF 15 filters about 93% of UVB rays, and SPF 30 filters out 97%, so the difference between the two isn’t wide. 

Plus, no matter how strong your sunscreen is, you have to be aware of your time in the sun. Take breaks to reapply sunscreen (and rehydrate while you’re at it). Wear protective clothing whenever possible, too. Even a brimmed hat can reduce your sun exposure and save you some UV skin damage.

Types of sunscreen: physical vs. chemical sunscreen

Physical sunscreen, or mineral sunscreens, are also known as sunblock. It sits on the skin and creates a barrier against ultraviolet rays. This type of sunscreen often leaves behind a milky white cast. Physical sunscreens usually include zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which are typically be safer for sensitive skin.

Chemical sunscreen penetrates the skin and absorbs UV rays before they can cause damage. The most common ingredients in this type of sunscreen are avobenzone, oxybenzone and PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid). Jump down to our handy glossary in the next section if you aren’t sure what any of this means. 

7 popular sunscreen ingredients

This brief glossary will help you navigate the world of sunscreen. 

  1. Avobenzone: An oil-soluble ingredient that absorbs different wavelengths of UV rays. This ingredient is controversial and not always considered safe.  
  2. Mexoryl SX: Also known as escamule, this compound filters UVA rays. ​​Mexoryl SX is water soluble. 
  3. Octinoxate: A chemical that blocks UV-B rays. For safety reasons, octinoxate can only be used in certain concentrations. 
  4. Oxybenzone: An organic compound that absorbs UV-A rays.
  5. Titanium dioxide: This chemical filters UV rays and is commonly included in “baby” sunscreen.
  6. PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid): This chemical naturally occurs in the body and blocks the sun’s rays. 
  7. Zinc oxide: Zinc oxide can be found in sunscreens in safe concentrations up to 25 percent. It can be harmful to the environment. This ingredient is also often found in sunscreens for babies.
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How do you know which ingredients you need? 

  • Sensitive skin: Avoid oxybenzone and opt for a physical sunscreen.
  • Fair skin: Find a high SPF and a formula that also provides blue light protection (for everyday use–whether you’re staying in with your computer or heading out in the sun).
  • Oily or acne-prone skin: Look for oil-free, matte sunscreens in line with your skincare routine. 
  • Eco-friendly: If you’re in or near water with a coral reef, avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, octinoxate, and zinc oxide since they can be harmful to the environment.
  • Other concerns: If you’re breastfeeding or planning to donate blood, avoid oxybenzone.

Ultimately, it’s important to protect your skin. UV exposure is a major factor in increasing your risk of skin cancer. If you aren’t sure which sunscreen is right for you or still have concerns, ask your doctor. 

Pro tips

Use your sunscreen as directed

It’s crucial to use suntan lotion, sunscreen, or sunblock as instructed on the label. Don’t forget to reapply as needed. 

Protect yourself from UV exposure with more than sunscreen

Going big on SPF alone can still mean going home with a worse sunburn and more 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.”

Did you get a nasty sunburn before finding this article? It happens to the best of us. No worries! Gopuff has you covered with soothing aloe vera gel. Tylenol won’t hurt, either. And 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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