Active Ingredients in Sunscreen Products

by beautifulwithbrains


UV filters in sunscreens

Do you know what’s in your sunscreen?

You’d better. Cos not all of them protect you from UVA rays. Some are lazy and only keep you safe from their UVB cousins. They can get away with this because SPF only refers to the level of protection from UVB rays. Crazy, I know!

If you can’t read those undecipherable labels, how can you tell if your sunscreen is doing its duty or slacking on the job?

Before you panic at the thought of going anywhere near those labels, worry not. I’ve put together this short guide with the most common active ingredients (the UV filters) found in sunscreen and the kind of protection they give you.

Before you pick up your next bottle of sunscreen, make sure it has at least one UVA filter in it:

Avobenzone: usually listed as Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane on the label (just to make your life more complicated), it protects against the entire UVA range. It degrades (stops working) quickly when exposed to light, so use it with ingredients that can help it last longer, such as Octocrylene, Mexoryl, or Tinosorb.

Benzophenones: a group of sunscreen ingredients that include Oxybenzone, Methanone, Benzophenone-3 and anything else that ends in “benzone” or “benzophenone”. They protect from all UVB and some UVA rays but can irritate sensitive skin.

Cinoxate: a sunscreen agent that offers full UVB and little UVA protection.

Ensulizole: aka Phenylbenzimidazole Sulfonic Acid, it provides full UVB and minimal UVA protection. It’s water-soluble and feels very light on the skin.

Homosalate: it provides full UVB  and minimal UVA protection. It can be used only in concentrations up to 10%.

Menthyl Anthranilate: aka Meradimate, it protects from some, but not all UVA rays. It’s rarely used in the USA and banned in Europe and Japan.

Mexoryl SX: aka Ecamsule and terephthalylidine dicamphor sulfonic acid (that’s usually how it disguises itself on the label), it’s developed and patented by L’Oreal. It protects against UVA rays and degrades more slowly when exposed to sunlight than other ingredients like Avobenzone.

Mexoryl XL: aka Drometrizole Trisiloxane, it’s developed and patented by L’Oreal too. It protects against UVB rays. It’s oil soluble so great for outdoors activities.

Octinoxate: aka Octyl Methoxycinnamate, it protects from UVB rays. It’s also soluble so great for outdoor activities. Some studies show it can generate free radicals so don’t forget to pile up your antioxidant serum beforehand.

Octisalate: aka octyl salicylate and ethylhexyl salicylate, it protects only from UVB rays.

Octocrylene: a weak UVB filter. It helps to stabilize Avobenzone but can cause irritations.

Tinosorb: Tinosorb S (bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine) and Tinosorb M (methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol) offer protection from all UVA and some UVB rays. Tinosorb S is water soluble while Tinosorb M is oil soluble. Both are photostable and can help other UV filters, such as Avobenzone, last longer, too.

Titanium Dioxide: a white mineral that protects against the entire UVB range but only half of the UVA range. It doesn’t irritate skin but can leave a white cast.

Trolamine Salicylate: a UVB filter.

Zinc Oxide: a white mineral that protects from the entire UV range (finally!). It’s very gentle and non-irritating but leaves a white cast on the skin.

In case you’re wondering, all my fave sunscreens use zinc oxide. It provides broad spectrum protection without irritating my skin, saving me the headache of having to decipher the whole ingredient list. You can find my fave zinc oxide sunscreens here.

How does your sunscreen fare? Let me know in the comments if it passed the test.


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Marloes January 17, 2012 - 3:29 pm

Thanks for sharing, really helpful. I like your blog very much, it’s really interesting to know about the ingredients in cosmetics.

beautifulwithbrains January 17, 2012 - 7:01 pm

Marloes, aww thank you! I’m glad you like my blog and that you found this post helpful. I hope to see you around often. 🙂

Dao January 17, 2012 - 3:44 pm

This is so helpful, Gio! Like you, I only use physical sunblock since the heat in VN can destroy chemical sunscreens pretty fast.

beautifulwithbrains January 17, 2012 - 7:05 pm

Dao, I’m glad you find it helpful. 🙂 I prefer physical sunblock too. Lasts longer and is gentler on the skin. 🙂

Alejandra January 17, 2012 - 5:51 pm

Thanks for this info, I usually have problems trying to calculate the amount of every sunscreen ingredient in chemical sunscreens to see if they have enough UVA protection. This list will be very helpful.
Thanks to you I realized why I was still getting sunburns after applying my pure titanium dioxide sunscreen every two hours. Now Im looking for another physical sunscreen, whats your opinion about one with 10% of zinc oxide and 5,5 of titanium dioxide? (spf 47). I have to spend several hours under the sun at 4000 meters over sea level, should I try with this one or look for a pure zinc oxide sunscreen?.

beautifulwithbrains January 17, 2012 - 7:12 pm

Alejandra, you’re welcome. It can be really tricky to figure out if a chemical sunscreen offer enough protection but I hope this small guide will help you.

That sunscreen seems to be pretty good to me. It will probably leave a white cast on skin, so blend it in well, but it offers adequate sun protection, which is the most important thing.

Jean January 18, 2012 - 1:10 am

Awesome post, and so easy to read (even with the chemical names!) Love the chart, too. I also like that zinc oxide, my favorite sunblock, is the only one on said chart that covers both UVA and UVB considerably. 🙂 I didn’t know about the 16%+ requirement though – very good to know! The white cast is a minor setback when you consider how much protection you’re getting, IMO.

Thanks again! 🙂

beautifulwithbrains January 18, 2012 - 7:05 am

Jean, you’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed this post too. And I agree with you. A white cast is a small price to pay for the high level of protection you’re getting, which is the most important thing. 🙂

LaDamaBianca January 18, 2012 - 10:41 am

Anche io la scorsa estate mi sono fatta una cultura riguardo i filtri solari. Mai più comprare un solare senza aver prima capito che filtri contiene.

beautifulwithbrains January 18, 2012 - 3:57 pm

LaDamaBianca, sono completamente d’accordo con te. Meglio assicurarsi che contengano filtri che offrano un’adeguata protezione senza irritare la pelle prima di comprare.

[email protected] January 18, 2012 - 4:53 pm

Thanks for sharing this! I didn’t know that titanium dioxide didn’t cover the whole spectrum.

beautifulwithbrains January 18, 2012 - 6:31 pm

Harshleen, you’re welcome. Titanium Dioxide is the one of the best ingredients in term of protection but unfortunately it doesn’t cover the entire UV spectrum on its own so it needs to be used with other ingredients.

Janessa January 19, 2012 - 3:30 am

I love this chart and the descriptions! I showed this to my dad even and I’ve bookmarked this.

beautifulwithbrains January 19, 2012 - 7:04 am

Janessa, I’m glad you find it useful. 🙂

Janessa January 11, 2013 - 3:55 am

I’ve referred to this chart at least a dozen times since discovering it. :]

beautifulwithbrains January 11, 2013 - 6:45 pm

I’m glad to hear that. 🙂


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