Sunscreen Buying Guide: Choosing The Best Sun Protection For Your Skin

“Don’t forget the sunscreen!”

Most of the time you remember to throw it into your bag as you head to the beach, pool or BBQ. If not, you make a pit stop on the way. But do you know what you’re buying? Why are some sun protection products called "sunscreen" and others "sunblock?" Why do some sunblocks leave a white haze?

We’ve got the answers just in time for the summer!

Sunscreen Vs Sunblock

Although "sunscreen" and "sunblock" are often used interchangeably, sunblock is only accurate for mineral-based sun protection products. Mineral-based formulas create a physical barrier on your skin and reflect the sun rays away from your body. 

On the other hand, chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin. The mechanic of action of action of chemical sunscreens is not to block the sun but rather turn the sun rays into heat and then release the heat from your skin.

"Sunscreen" and "sun protection" are generic terms that apply to both mineral and chemical formulas. 

Why Are Some Sun Screens White?

Mineral sunscreens contain zinc oxide, which is white mineral that when applied to the skin is not absorbed. It "sits" on the skin's outer layer and reflects the sun. Some sunblocks are very white - think lifeguards with white stripes under their eyes and on their nose. If you do not like that look, don't worry, not all mineral sunscreens leave a bright white hue. Obagi Mineral Sun Shield uses an invisible technology that enables the formula to dry clear. 

sun screen

Chemical sunscreens can be more transparent because they are absorbed into the skin.

Mineral/Physical Sunscreen Active Ingredients

  • Zinc oxide
  • Titanium dioxide

Chemical Sunscreen Active Ingredients

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate

What Is the Difference Between UVA and UVB Rays?

UVA and UVB are types of electromagnetic radiation that forms light waves. UVA waves are longer than UVB rays and are more damaging to skin that UVB rays.  The sun is a strong source of UVA and UVB rays.

Other types of electromagnetic radiation include microwaves, which are actually sound waves. They cause vibration and not light.

Since UVA rays can cause the most harm to the skin, sun protection factor (SPF) in sunscreens refers to the amount of shielding from UVA rays. UVA rays penetrate deep into the epidermis where they can cause long-term skin damage such as premature aging, skin cancer, and hyperpigmentation, among other issues.

UVB rays affect the outer layer of the skin. Signs of overexposure to UVB rays can be seen immediately. UVB rays cause sunburn, darken skin hyperpigmentation and can cause sunspots or freckles. Learn what skin products can help lighten and brighten skin in our blog Skin Care Power Trio: Tretinoin, Vitamin C And Hydroquinone.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), everyone needs sunscreen. An estimated one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

If you haven't always been perfect about applying sunscreen and have sun damage and sun spots, you want to learn about hydroquinone. Hydroquinone 4% strength is a prescription skin product that lightens skin. It's FDA-approved to treat melasma, dark skin patches on the cheekbones and upper lip caused by hormone fluctuations, especially during pregnancy. Melasma is also called "pregnancy mask." 

Obagi Nu-Derm Sunfader is a 2-in-1 product that containers the skin lightener hydroquinone and SPF 15. Add an Obagi anti-aging and skin brightening Vitamin C treatment and you're off to a strong start to reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and fine lines and wrinkles. 

To be sure you have protection from both UVA and UVB rays, choose broad spectrum sunblock. The ADA recommends an SPF of 30 for most everyone and SPF 50 for fair complexions that burn easily.

Did You Know?

You skin needs protection from UVA and UVB rays year round. Here's why:

  • The sun reflects off surfaces: ice, snow, the sidewalk. It's not the same as a romp on the beach but it's still enough to damage the skin.
  • Compact fluorescent lights (CFL) have been found to emit significant UV rays.1

Woman's Back With SPF Written in SunscreenHow Is SPF Calculated?

SPF represents the amount of time it will take you to burn in the sun when you are using that specific sunscreen.

For example, an SPF 50 rating enables someone who normally burns in the sun after 20 minutes of exposure without any sun protection to stay in the sun for 600 minutes with the SPF 50 without burning.

To understand how the sun protection you choose can prevent you from burning, use this equation:

Multiple the number of minutes (M) you can stay in the sun without burning without any sunscreen by the SPF rating of the sunscreen. Added together they = time you can stay in the sun with that sun protection lotion without burning.

M x SPF = the time you can spend in the sun 

This formula is a general guide. It's up to you to care for your skin. Watch how your skin reacts to the sun and the skin sun protection you are using. Additionally, just because you aren't getting sunburned, it doesn't mean you're safe. No sunscreen is 100% effective. For smarter protection, choose water-resistant sunscreens even if you don't go in the water, especially if you will be exerting yourself. Perspiration can reduce the effectiveness of regular sunscreen. SPF does not account for UVB protection. Choose a broad-spectrum sunblock to ensure you have protection from both UVA and UVB rays.  

For the best possible sun protection, follow these tips:

  • Always use a skin sun protection product
  • Limit your time in the sun, especially between 10 am and 2 pm
  • Reapply your sunscreen as directed
  • Protect your head, face, and neck with a hat
  • Protect your eyes with sunglasses
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Use water-resistant sunscreen 

Does Sunscreen Expire?

Yes, sunscreens do not last forever. After 3 years whether your sunscreen has an expiration date or not, you should toss it.

Why Doesn’t My Sunscreen Have An Expiration Date?

The FDA mandates that sun protection lotions remain useful for three years. If a product has demonstrated to the FDA that it will provide the full sun protection as claimed for three years, then an expiration date is not required. Since you may not know when the sunscreen was created, it’s best to stick with sunscreens that have a printed expiration date.

How Do I Choose Sunscreen For My Face?

For many reasons, a special sunscreen for your face is a wise decision. Facial sunscreens are usually made to be non-comedogenic, hypoallergenic, and ideally, dermatologist tested.

They should not make your face feel greasy and be free of irritating ingredients. A cream that also moisturizes is a good choice. If you don’t like the white sheen that standard mineral lotions create, opt for tinted mineral sunscreen or one with a translucent, sheer finish. Overall, take the time to read the label to be safe. 

What Are the Best Ingredients for Face Sunscreens?

Special ingredients to look for in sunblock for the face:

  • Vitamin E – Skin repair and antioxidant protection
  • Vitamin C – Skin repair and antioxidant protection and skin brightening
  • Coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinone) - Antioxidant protection
  • Ceramides - Contains lipids that helps retain moisture and protect the skin's acid mantle
  • Niacinamide - This form of B3 is touted for its anti-aging and skin lightening properties
  • Algae Extract – Hydration
  • Squalene – Moisturizer
To reduce the chance of skin irritation look for sun protection products for the face and body as well that are fragrance-free and PABA-free.

Is PABA Bad For Skin?

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) is approved by the FDA for use in sunscreen lotions. It is effective in blocking UVA rays. PABA has been shown to irritate some skin types and can interact with certain medications.2If you choose a sunscreen with PABA, be sure to read the label and speak to your doctor first if you are on any medications that are listed as possibly contraindicated.

1Irfan,Umair. Can Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs Damage? Skin Scientific American (Last visited May 28,2020)


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