Ever examine the list of ingredients in your sunscreen and wonder what they all mean? By now you are probably oversaturated with information, precautions, and warnings about UV damage and the proper use of sunscreen – but it’s worth reading on, and with good reason. Damage to the skin cells from UV rays is serious and can be life altering.
So you heed all the warnings about UV damage and take all the precautions, but do you know what’s in your sunscreen and does it really matter? Well, that depends on your skin type and your skin condition. Do you have sensitive skin? Perhaps you have a skin condition like Rosacea which means you should avoid certain ingredients.
Types of Sunscreen
First, let’s examine the different types of sunscreen:
Chemical sunscreen – these absorb sunlight to prevent sun damage and the product is absorbed into the skin. People with sensitive skin or with skin conditions like Eczema or Rosacea may experience an allergic reaction or burning sensation with chemical sunscreens and usually prefer using physical sunscreens.
Physical sunscreen – sits on top of the skin to form a protective barrier. The ingredients do not generally penetrate the skin (although some believe that people with Eczema may absorb some of the product into the skin). When the sun hits the skin, radiation and light is either absorbed into the ingredient or reflected away from the skin. Either way your skin is ‘physically’ protected.
We have outlined some of the key active ingredients found in most US commercially manufactured sunscreens (there are a total of 17 ingredients approved by the FDA for use in sunscreens and sun blocks):
Zinc Oxide – this ingredient delivers broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays (long rays and short rays). It is considered a ‘physical’ sunscreen (also referred to as a mineral sunscreen) that sits on the skin and creates a barrier. Zinc oxide is non-irritating and hypoallergenic, making it ideal for people with sensitive skin or inflammatory skin disorders. We usually think of thick white pasty cream when we think of zinc oxide sunscreens. But new, nanotechnology has made it possible for mineral sunscreens to be applied invisibly to the skin, and new zinc oxide technology has made it possible for even regular zinc oxide products to rub almost invisibly onto the skin.
Titanium Dioxide – this is similar to zinc oxide in every way except it does not deliver UVA protection (protection from long rays that cause sun damage).
PARA-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA) – sunscreen products with this ingredient are considered ‘chemical’ sunscreens. The ingredient absorbs ultraviolet (UV) and visible sun light and is only available in combination with other sunscreen agents. In recent years “PABA-FREE” sunscreens have become popular, and PARA-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) has made the ‘ingredient watch list’ due to several adverse side effects.
In fact, PABA is a natural chemical found in the vitamin, folic acid and also in several foods, including grains, eggs, milk, and meat. So why is it on the ‘watch list’? Some studies have raised concerns that it may not be safe to use topically – those concerns are:
- Many consumers were experiencing allergic reactions to PABA
- It was thought to make the skin sensitive with use
- It tended to stain clothing
- When mixed with DNA (we are talking about your skin here) and exposed to sunlight, the sunscreen broke down, releasing free radicals that could damage skin cells. These findings raised the concern that PABA could actually encourage the formation of cancerous cells in the skin.
While this ingredient was banned in Europe in 2009, sunscreens that contain PARA-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA) are still manufactured in the USA, but now that you know what to look for, you might want to avoid this ingredient.
Avobenzone – this oil-soluble ingredient has the ability to absorb UV light over a wider range of wavelengths than many other organic sunscreen agents. It is the most commonly used ingredient in broad spectrum sunscreens.
Ecamsule – (patented by L’Oreal as Meroxyl SX) this is one of the very few chemical sunscreens with good coverage of the UVA spectrum. Since Ecamsule does not protect against UVB rays, it should be combined with other active sunscreen agents to ensure broad-spectrum protection. It does not degrade under sunlight and is not significantly absorbed into the skin. It is one of the very few comprehensive UVA sun blocks in widespread use.
Homosalate – this water-resistant chemical ingredient is present in 45% of all US sunscreens. It is a sun blocking agent that absorbs UVB radiation to protect the skin from damage, however it does not protect against UVA rays.
Padimate O – this ingredient is related to PABA (PARA-aminobenzoic acid). Although it is a safer version of PABA, it is nonetheless controversial for use as an ingredient in sunscreen. Like PABA, Padimate O absorbs UV rays and protects against damage from UVB rays, but it can react with DNA to produce indirect DNA damage.
Trolamine Salicylate – this is a common ingredient in sunscreens. It absorbs UVB rays and has no known harmful side effects.
Octocrylene – this organic compound is a colorless, oily liquid. It absorbs UVB and UVA rays and also protects the skin from DNA damage. One downside – this ingredient can penetrate the skin where it acts as a photosensitizer, resulting in increased production of free-radicals. Free radicals are known to promote DNA damage that can lead to the increased incidence of malignant melanoma in sunscreen-users.
The ingredients listed above represent just a percentage of the total ingredients in most sunscreens and it’s worth noting, that with very few exceptions, these ingredients all break down when exposed to the sun. That’s part of how they work to protect your skin, and the main reason why reapplication during prolonged periods of sun exposure is necessary to maintain the level of protection the label claims. For more information on sunscreens and how to use them properly, please read this and related articles below.
- Sunscreen: New Guidelines this Summer
- Frequently Asked Questions About Sunscreen
- Signs of Sun Damage & How to Prevent Sun Damage
- Sun Damaged Skin
- Professional Treatment of Sun Damaged Skin
- Repairing Sun Damaged Skin