Young woman applying sunscreen on face at the beach

Sunscreen is an essential item that everybody should be using.

Of course, the fact that there are so many different types of sunscreen out there can make choosing the right one a little challenging. Knowing that around 67% of sunscreens don’t actually work doesn’t help either!

So, how do you decide on the best sunscreen?

There are a few different factors to take into consideration, with one of the main ones being the ingredients that the sunscreen has been formulated with.

Chemical vs Physical

Just about every sunscreen out there can be classed as either a chemical or a physical sunscreen.

What’s the difference between the two?

The ingredients differ, but so does the way in which they work.

Here is a quick breakdown:

  • Chemical Sunscreens – contain specific chemicals that absorb the sun’s UV rays and convert them to heat, before emitting this heat from the body
  • Physical Sunscreens – contain specific minerals that reflect the sun’s UV rays away from the surface of the skin

Chemical versus physical sunscreen infographic

Which one is better?

Generally, physical sunscreens tend to be more widely suitable.

Those with sensitive skin can often have problems with chemical sunscreens. This is not only due to the chemicals used in the formulas, but also because of the chemical reaction that takes place that turns the UV rays into heat. This extra heat in the skin can exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions, from acne to eczema to rosacea.

So, how do you know if a sunscreen is chemical or physical?

By taking a look at the ingredients list…

Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide is a mineral that is present in just about every physical sunscreen.

Why?

Because it is effective at blocking both UVA and UVB rays from entering into the skin. 

What exactly is zinc oxide?

It is made by combining zinc with oxygen molecules, resulting in a fine white powder.

It is the color of this powder that has given physical sunscreens a bad rep in the past…

Physical sunscreens used to leave behind a white cast on the skin after they were applied, which is obviously a look that no one wants to have!

However, there have been so many developments in recent years when it comes to physical sunscreen formulas. The zinc oxide that is used is now in nano-sized particles, meaning that there is not a white film left on the skin after the sunscreen has been used.

While zinc oxide may be most commonly used as a sunscreen ingredient, it does also bring with it a few additional skin benefits, such as:

  • Reduces skin inflammation – contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties
  • Helps to treat acne breakouts – by lowering inflammation and providing antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. It also acts as an astringent, tightening up the pores and preventing them from releasing excess oil
  • Increases skin moisture levels – it does this by forming a protective film over the surface of the skin, preventing water from evaporating out
  • Encourages the natural production of collagen – this helps with skin firmness and tightness, basically providing you with anti-aging benefits

If you have decided that you want zinc oxide to be the main ingredient in your sunscreen, make sure that you check the percentage of zinc oxide being used…

Each percent of zinc oxide provides you with 1.6 SPF units. This means that a sunscreen needs to contain between 15% to 20% zinc oxide for it to offer an SPF of 24-32.

Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is another ingredient that is used in physical sunscreens, and is often combined with zinc oxide.

Molecules of titanium oxide

You are probably wondering…

If zinc oxide is so effective, why is titanium dioxide needed too?

Because more protection is always going to be better than less!

Yes, titanium dioxide doesn’t offer the same amount of UVA protection as zinc oxide, but it still holds strong when it comes to UVB protection.

Combining titanium dioxide with zinc oxide gives you an even broader spectrum sunscreen.

Avobenzone

When it comes to chemical sunscreens, avobenzone is one of the most commonly-used ingredients.

Wondering what it actually is?

Avobenzone is a synthetic, oil-soluble chemical that was approved for sunscreen use by the US FDA in 1988.

It absorbs both UVA and UVB rays, and these broad-spectrum properties have helped to make avobenzone one of the most popular chemical sunscreen ingredients out there.

However, there are a couple of problems with this ingredient…

Avobenzone actually breaks down when it comes into contact with sunlight.

You are probably thinking…

How is avobenzone going to protect my skin from the sun if the sun causes it to break down?

Avobenzone needs to be combined with certain other ingredients in order to make it more stable.

That’s the main problem that many tend to have with chemical sunscreens – each chemical on its own is quite worthless unless they have been combined with others. However, this means that you then end up with a whole army of chemicals being absorbed by your skin.

Which ingredients does avobenzone need to be combined with in order for it to be effective?

These ingredients can help:

  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene

You may have also noticed the term Helioplex on a sunscreen ingredient list. This is basically a term that refers to the technology that has been used to stabilize the avobenzone within a product.

Of course, even though those other ingredients keep avobenzone more stabilized, the ingredient still does break down over time. This is why avobenzone is known for triggering skin allergies, making it an ingredient that those with sensitive skin should avoid.

Green Tea Extract

After reading about how vitamins C and E can help with sun protection, you are probably ready to look for a sunscreen that contains both of those vitamins.

But what if you found out that there is another ingredient out there that is 100 times stronger than vitamin C, and 25 times more powerful than vitamin E?

Yes, green tea extract is all of this and more.

Green tea leaf in the wild

Although those above statistics relate to the antioxidant properties of green tea (which are still important when it comes to dealing with the damage that the sun causes), green tea has also been proven, in numerous studies, to be effective at protecting the skin from the sun’s UV rays.

Just a small amount of this extract is able to provide this effect, but science has not yet figured out whether green tea on its own can function as an effective sunscreen.

Nevertheless, green tea extract is still a fantastic ingredient to look for in a sunscreen, especially when you take into account its many other skin-boosting benefits too. These include:

  • Reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by promoting collagen production
  • Increases the thickness of the epidermis, which helps to keep the skin better hydrated
  • Protects against cancer
  • Has powerful antioxidant effects
  • Has anti-inflammatory effects

All of those above benefits, plus the ingredient’s sun-protecting qualities, can be experienced even more if you drink green tea alongside using it topically.

Vitamin C and Vitamin E

On their own, both vitamin C and vitamin E nourish the skin with a number of benefits.

However, when you combine the two…

You end up with a mixture that is able to offer the skin a natural form of sun protection!

While both ingredients protect against both UVA and UVB rays, vitamin E is more effective against UVB, and vitamin C is better for UVA

There is currently only a small amount of research on the potentials that this ingredient combo could have when it comes to sun protection. This is why you won’t see a sunscreen containing just these vitamins as their active ingredients. However, both vitamin C and vitamin E can go a long way in boosting the photoprotection of a sunscreen.

Of course, the fact that both of these ingredients provide so many other benefits to the skin helps too…

Both vitamins are able to directly interact with your skin cells and neutralize free radicals, thanks to their antioxidant properties. This helps to prevent skin aging, keeping fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin at bay.

Vitamin E is also known for its healing and moisturizing properties, while vitamin C is a powerful skin-brightener that also increases the natural production of collagen and elastin.

Did you know that the Opal Sheer Shield is infused with vitamin E and green tea extract for their skin-protecting benefits? Thanks to the rich moisturizing and UV-fighting properties of these ingredients, this is a great product to protect skin moisture levels while defending against free radical formation.

Shea Butter

You likely already own a number of skin care products that already contain shea butter. This ingredient is widely used, and for good reason too!

It is packed with vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, all of which nourish, moisturize and heal the skin.

However, did you know that shea butter also makes for a fantastic sunscreen ingredient?

Shea butter has natural sun-protecting properties, with some forms of the ingredient boasting an SPF of up to 10! This all comes down to the butter’s cinnamic acid esters, which prevent the sun’s UV rays from entering into the skin and causing their damage.

Not only that, but those compounds also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties too.

You are probably thinking…

Does that mean that I can use shea butter instead of a conventional sunscreen?

Unfortunately not. To begin with, you need more than SPF 10 to fully protect your skin from the sun. This may be enough to prevent a sunburn, but it will not provide you with adequate protection against skin aging, or even skin cancer.

The amount of SPF that shea butter contains varies greatly between the different shea butters out there. It is hard to get consistency when it comes to the SPF value of this ingredient.

It also tends to be better at protecting against UVB rays. This means that using shea butter on its own may still leave your skin vulnerable to UVA rays. These are the rays that penetrate deepest into the skin and speed up the skin aging process.

Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

Now that you know which ingredients a good sunscreen should have, you also need to know which ingredients you would be best staying away from.

Unfortunately, this list is pretty long, but here are some of the more common names that you should try to avoid:

  • Oxybenzone – while this chemical absorbs both UVA and UVB rays, research shows that it causes hormone disruption in the body, and can also trigger the growth of even more free radicals than the sun would have caused
  • Octinoxate – although this is quite a gentle ingredient for those with sensitive skin, it is highly unstable, causing more free radicals in the body. Just like oxybenzone, this is another ingredient that causes hormonal imbalances
  • PABA – increases skin sensitivity and allergic reactions, while also promoting the growth of cancerous cells
  • Homosalate – this ingredient has been shown to increase the rate at which cancer cells grow, while also increasing the rate at which the skin absorbs pesticides from the environment

Another group of ingredients to be wary of are polyunsaturated oils.

When these oils come into contact with UV rays, they can lead to a number of skin concerns, from cellular damage to hyperpigmentation to accelerated skin aging.

Polyunsaturated oils include:

  • Almond oil
  • Rose hip oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Grape seed oil
  • Cottonseed oil

Small jar of almond oil surrounded by loose almonds

There are many other polyunsaturated oils out there, and you really don’t want these oils in your sunscreen. It can be easy to trip up in this area, because many people immediately equate natural oils with nothing but benefits. If you are ever unsure and are not able to look up whether a specific oil is polyunsaturated or not, try to opt for an oil-free formula instead.

It does take quite a bit of time and effort to find the perfect sunscreen. However, since this is a product that you wear on a daily basis, and that does so much good for your skin, it really is worth putting some time into your sunscreen search. Your skin will definitely thank you in the future!