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SPF written in cream letters on back of woman on the beach for sun protection

What makes a good sunscreen? Here is how to decode them all

Face sunscreen is an absolute essential for any anti-aging routine. Of course, health-wise, any sunscreen is pertinent to avoid skin cancer throughout the whole body. Whatever your primary concern is for using it, don’t consider it optional. Everyone should be protected from the sun and UV rays – even when indoors, and on cloudy days.

There are many sunscreen options on the market today. Visit a drug store and you may find an entire aisle dedicated to them. It can be overwhelming.

To simplify how they work, just know that all the brands and bottles, with all their claims, will fall into three categories:

  • Chemical sunscreen
  • Mineral sunscreen (a.ka. physical sunscreen)
  • Combination sunscreen (a mixture of both chemical and mineral ingredients)

From there, they may promote certain selling features. These include added ingredients, a lack of ingredients, or special formulations.

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Chemical and physical sunscreens can share certain qualities, such as providing broad-spectrum coverage (i.e. UVA 1, UVA 2 and UVB protection). Both types can be water-resistant, tinted or untinted, oil-free or non-comedogenic. You just have to look at their labels to find these features.

However, their main categorizations do come with pros and cons of their own.

So, how do you choose the best sunscreen for you? We’ll explain the differences between them below, to help you make this decision:

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UV radiation illustration diagram showing mineral vs chemical sunscreen function

Chemical sunscreens

This type of sunscreen acts as a filter to absorb UV rays, before it can reach the lower layers of your skin. It releases these rays as heat. Popular ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. These are often used together to provide both UVA and UVB protection. Combining them also stabilizes their effects (otherwise they will be ineffective once exposed to light).

Other chemical sunscreen ingredients are banned in certain countries, while being freely available in others. For example, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), is now generally considered unsafe, and not available in many places. However, in Europe and Canada, popular ingredients, like Tinosorb, are used in some brands, even though they are not FDA-approved in the USA.

One of the latter advancements in chemical sunscreens is with Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL. These are used to block long UVA1 rays. They are made by L’Oréal. They are not available in the USA, but some brands in Canada may contain them. Their selling point is their ability to remain stable for long periods of time. That is, if you are seeking a chemical sunscreen (otherwise a high SPF, mineral sunscreen is fine).

The main advantage to using chemical sunscreens is that they ‘sink’ into the skin very easily, and don’t leave a white cast. They feel lighter. Some say they also last longer, or are more preventative against sunburn (as opposed to sun damage).

A practical disadvantage is that they can interfere with makeup application. Plus, if you have sensitive skin, such as rosacea, these chemical ingredients may also cause irritation on you.

Lastly, some chemical sunscreen ingredients can have damaging effects on the ocean and its wildlife. Their use can be restricted by law in some areas because of this. Or, people voluntarily boycott them for this reason. However, most are not necessarily unsafe to human health (though this is a longstanding debate).

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Mineral sunscreens (a.k.a. physical sunscreens)

These types of sunscreens use mineral ingredients to reflect the sun’s rays off your skin. This way, they don’t reach the lower dermal layers, where they can do damage. Popular physical sunscreen ingredients include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Together, they provide both UVA and UVB protection for higher SPF ratings (though some argue they don’t provide as much UVA protection as chemical ingredients can).

Zinc oxide in sunblock is considered photostable, meaning it doesn’t degrade as soon as it is exposed to light. However, mineral sunscreens do degrade eventually, and need to be reapplied every 2 hours, just as with chemical sunscreens.

Mineral sunscreens can come in both a cream or powder (and sometimes, even sprays). The powder sunscreens are not meant to be your base layer, since they can’t offer as much coverage as a cream. They are useful for reapplication over makeup throughout the day, however.

Pro tip: try the Sunforgettable® Total Protection™ Brush-on Shield SPF 50 w/ EnviroScreen™. It’s a powder sunscreen for easy re-application over makeup!

In either form, a major advantage to mineral sunscreens is that they sit on top of the skin, rather than sink into it. This makes them less likely to cause acne or irritation (however, a product’s added ingredients can still cause contact dermatitis – see more below).

The latest advancement in mineral sunscreen is the avoidance of a white cast after application. Traditional mineral sunscreens can feel ‘heavy and thick’ on the skin. They can leave a ‘ghostly’ look behind, if their formulation is not micronized. Some people don’t like this, whereas others appreciate the extra moisture and brightening effect. Nonetheless, the issue as a whole is becoming a thing of the past. Though, some people are concerned about how well minerals can work as light reflectors when they are converted to nanoparticles. So far, we haven’t found anything conclusive on this.

Mineral sunscreens need to be coated in their particle formulation to be inert (meaning, not photoactive). This is important when it comes to preventing free radical damage on the skin, which is the main goal of any SPF. A high-quality sunscreen would likely take care of this. However, it’s not something you’ll read on labels.

Another mineral that has become popular in physical sunscreens is iron oxide. It is believed to help protect against the skin damaging effects of blue light, which we get from our modern devices. This ingredient acts as a colourant in many makeup products. So, as you can imagine, it is mostly found in tinted sunscreens. But, you won’t find this component in the ‘actives’ section of a product label. Instead, look for it near the end of a list of ingredients.

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Combination sunscreens

Combination sunscreens include both mineral and chemical ingredients to protect the skin from UV rays. These are specially formulated to be compatible with each other.

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Sunscreen additives

Sunscreens these days can be marketed as having extra features to boost their benefits. For example, antioxidants and moisturizers can be included, to help with the skin’s appearance throughout the day.

Antioxidants are an important component of sun protection. This is because UV rays can cause free radical damage on our skin, the main reason for its degradation. Long-term effects can include hyperpigmentation, redness and wrinkles, not to mention more serious issues, such as melanomas. Antioxidants help to counteract the effects of free-radical damage.

On this topic, note that if a sunscreen label advertises protection from infrared rays (IR), this usually means that it contains antioxidants (though not all sunscreens containing antioxidants use this term). IR protection doesn’t mean that an additional filter is added specifically for this wavelength.

Sunscreens can also contain preservatives (like parabens) and fragrances. Depending on your skin type, these may cause irritation, and should be avoided.

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SPF 30 illustrated on the back of a woman in the sunshine

Sunscreen non-negotiables

As a concluding word, we would say that ultimately, any sunscreen you choose should meet certain ‘non-negotiable’ requirements. This goes whether the sunscreen is chemical or mineral, meant for the face or the body, oily or oil-free, waterproof or not, includes antioxidants or fragrances – whatever the case may be. You are always looking for:

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High sun protection Factor (SPF)

SPF measurements can be a mystery. Why use an SPF 15 when there is an SPF 100? Some people misinterpret these numbers as being related to the minutes of sun protection. That’s not accurate. Plus, even when we get into the correct time calculations, the theory is not that cut and dry.

To break this down in the simplest way we can, we’ll say that each SPF rating is giving you an indicator of how long you can be protected from the sun. This depends on how quickly you burn from sun exposure (not how quickly all people burn). Let’s say you are a person who burns after 10 minutes in the sun. An SPF rating tells you that you can multiply 10 minutes by its factor of 15, 50, 100, and so on.

So, you’d think that 10 minutes x an SPF 15 equals 150 minutes of protection. But that’s not the case. Many other issues come into play when it comes to sunscreen degradation. Not least of which is the photostability of ingredients designed to protect against both UVA and UVB light. Plus, most people don’t use enough to begin with. Then, they rub it off, sweat it off, or swim it off.

Your best bet is to stick to SPF 30 or higher. After SPF 50, you get a minimal accumulation of protection, so it’s not necessarily better to use an SPF 100 at that point.

The most efficient way to protect yourself is to reapply SPF every 2 hours, no matter the rating. To be really safe, you should wear protective clothing and stay in the shade.

Some sunscreen products also use what’s called a PA rating. This is another way of measuring the strength or sun protection of a product, particularly for UVA rays. In North America, these usually always come with an SPF rating alongside them. Of course, the higher the PA rating, the better. You want as many “+” symbols as possible in a PA rating. E.g. a product with a “PA+++” rating or higher.

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Broad-spectrum coverage

The term “broad-spectrum” refers to a sunscreen’s ability to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. If the product label does not mention this term, or does not explicitly state that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, then run away! It may only be helping you with one form of light, leaving you susceptible to skin damage from the other.

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