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Understanding the Different Types of Sunscreen

By now you understand that wearing an SPF daily (not just when you’re at the beach) is imperative. But choosing that SPF? Not so straightforward. Nowadays, almost every drug store has multiple shelves that display endless products dedicated to protecting your skin from the sun. Having so many options isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but with so many products to choose from — each claiming to last the longest, apply the easiest or best resist sweat— it can be difficult to figure out what the best option for your skin really is.

You may have heard people refer to sun cream, sunscreen and sunblock. Are these words synonyms? Is sunblock an outdated term only your parents use? Plus, what’s broad-spectrum sunscreen? What’s the real difference between all these terms? Below, we set the record straight.

woman on the beach putting on sunscreen

What is sunblock?

Your inkling that sunblock is an outdated term is correct — as of 2011, the FDA banned advertisers from using the word “sunblock” to describe products, as they believe the term overstates effectiveness. So, despite the word remaining in our vocabularies, what was once known as sunblock is now referred to as a mineral sunscreen or physical sunscreen by advertisers and manufacturers.

Essentially, this type of sunscreen acts as a physical barrier between the sun and your skin. It contains minerals — such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — that act as UV filters by reflecting the sun’s harmful rays before they are able to penetrate the layers of our skin.

Because these types of sun protectants are physical barriers, they traditionally had a thicker viscosity. As formulas have become more advanced, however, physical sunscreens have become thinner and easier to apply. What’s true, however, is that when physical sunscreens are rubbed off the skin, they’re essentially ineffective. This is why the FDA also banned companies that produce physical sunscreens from using the terms “sweat resistant” and “waterproof” when describing their products. They can, however, be called “water resistant” because the formula repels water (versus the way sweat pushes the sunscreen off the body because it’s coming from within).

These kinds of sunscreens must be applied more carefully, to ensure they cover every inch of the skin.

If the skin remains dry, barrier sunscreens do last longer than chemical sunscreens and are less likely to clog pores. For this reason, and because they remain on the surface of the skin to deflect the sun’s heat and energy, they’re ideal for those with sensitive or acne prone complexions. Since these formulas create a physical film on the top of the skin, they sometimes leave a white residue (making them less than ideal for those with darker skin tones). Again, this has changed over the years as formulas have become more advanced.

What is sunscreen?

Although all forms of sun protection are now technically referred to as sunscreen, the word typically (and traditionally) implies a form of chemical sun protection that prevents skin damage by absorbing harmful UV radiation. Organic compounds in chemical sunscreens (common examples include avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone) are actually absorbed into the skin rather than sitting on top of it to act as effective UV filters. When exposed to UV rays, these compounds undergo chemical reactions that convert radiation into heat, which is then released from your skin. As the compounds are converted into heat, the sunscreen begins to lose its protective abilities. This is why frequent re-application is necessary when your sunscreen-slathered skin is exposed to direct UV light for extended periods. It’s also why chemical sunscreens increase redness, and exacerbate flushing in sensitive or rosacea-prone skin.

Unlike physical sunblocks, chemical-based sunscreen is meant be applied 30 minutes before exposure to UV rays so that it can be properly absorbed into the skin. Chemical sunscreens are often oil based, therefore they can clog they pores they are penetrating.

What is broad-spectrum sunscreen?

For a sunscreen to be considered broad-spectrum it must contain ingredients that protect users from both UVA and UVB rays. Thus, broad-spectrum formulas usually contain both physical and chemical sun protection ingredients, although there are certain chemical and physical ingredients that work to repel both types of UV light.

Because broad-spectrum sunscreens protect from both types of harmful sun rays, opting for this type of sunscreen is always recommended.

How do I tell the difference?

Because most formulas are simply called sunscreen nowadays, it can be difficult to work out which type of sunscreen is which. However, the easiest way to find out if you’re buying a physical sunscreen or a chemical sunscreen is to look at the ingredients.

Finding a physical vs. chemical formula

If the sunscreen only contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it’s a physical ‘sunblock’.

If an ingredient list includes octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, octisalate, and/or avobenzone, these are UVA-protecting ingredients, and it’s a chemical sunscreen.

Identifying a broad-spectrum formula

Most likely, any broad-spectrum formula will be identified as such. However, certain ingredients, both chemical and physical, are broad-spectrum: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, octylmethyl, salicylates, and sulisobenzone are among the most common.

It’s likely that if the ingredient list contains one of the UVA-protecting chemicals listed above plus a zinc or titanium, it’s a broad-spectrum product.

The bottom line

Now that you’re educated about all your options, having a fully-stocked sunscreen aisle to peruse isn’t such a bad thing, right? It may take a little testing or trial and error, but there’s certainly more than one broad-spectrum sunscreen out there that’s right for your skin type and lifestyle.

  1. I’ve read online that chemical formula sunscreens are harmful and linked to cancer because it is absorbed in the skin. Is it true? My skin is sensitive and I did notice that when I use the chemical sunscreens, sometimes my face has a burning sensation that goes away after a while. I prefer the physical formulas or a mixture of both if need be. Is SPF 15 enough for daily use or should it be a minimum of 30 SPF?

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