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Be Smarter in the Sun
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UVA & UVB rays

Understanding Sunscreen Ingredients

When it comes to protecting your skin, you want to make sure you’re getting the right product for the job. This is especially true when it comes to choosing sunscreen for kids and babies, because as a parent you want to make sure you’re keeping them protected properly. However, is there really such a thing as “safe sunscreen” that works for everyone?

In truth, a safe sunscreen is one that effectively works to protect your skin from harmful UV rays without causing irritation, dryness, breakouts or other dermatological issues. What may be a harmful ingredient in a sunscreen formula for one person may be fine for another, because he or she has a different skin type. In this light, understanding sunscreen ingredients is all about choosing the right ingredient for your unique skin. If you’re ever in doubt, consult a dermatologist about what will work for you.

FDA Regulation of Sunscreens

One of the biggest challenges in choosing a sunscreen by its ingredients is decoding what the ingredients mean. If you look at the label, you’ll see lots of long scientific names that mean absolutely nothing to the average consumer. After all, how likely is it that the average consumer can understand the difference between a sunscreen that uses "phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid" versus one that uses "octyl methoxycinnamate"?

Thankfully, the FDA actually regulates sunscreen so you can be more confident when you buy sunscreen products in the store that they are largely safe to use for most consumers. The FDA regulates what active ingredients may be used in sunscreen, as well as how sunscreens get rated for UV protection. Most of the long, complex compound names you see on the label refer to an active UV-blocking ingredient.

These have been ruled “safe for use” by the FDA, although this doesn’t mean some consumers may not have allergic reactions to these ingredients. In addition, several of these compounds have been linked to causing cancer in some studies, even though the FDA evaluation found no conclusive link. If you’re concerned about using a particular chemical, particularly when it comes to choosing a sunscreen for a child or infant, you may want to opt instead for naturally-occurring UV blockers, such as zinc oxide sunscreen or titanium dioxide sunscreen.

Other Ingredients in Sunscreen

Apart from these active ingredient chemical compounds, sunscreens contain other ingredients that may or may not have a negative affect your skin. Choosing the right sunscreen often comes down to choosing the right combination of ingredients for your skin type. You may have a certain type of skin or certain allergy that will cause a sunscreen to adversely affect your skin. This can be anything from dryness or oiliness, to irritation, rashes and peeling. This makes it essential to understand your own skin so you know what works for you.

The following sunscreens offer alternatives to standard sunscreen formulas if you have a unique skin type or want to avoid a certain active ingredient:

  • Oil-Free Sunscreen. If you have oily skin, applying an oil-based sunscreen is likely to cause breakouts and blemishes. An oil-free sunscreen allows you to protect your skin without causing other dermatology issues in the process.
  • Alcohol-Free Sunscreen. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you have dry skin, you want to avoid alcohol-based sunscreen products. These tend to dry skin out, so you can end up with irritation and rough spots if you don’t use alcohol-free sunscreen.
  • PABA-Free Sunscreen. PABA is an active ingredient UV blocker. It’s an abbreviation of para-aminobenzoic acid or p-aminobenzoic acid. In past decades, this was a prevalent compound, but high instances of allergic reactions as well as a link to causing cancer means almost no sunscreens contain PABA anymore. However, if you’re in doubt you can specifically buy a PABA-free sunscreen.
  • Oxybenzone-Free Sunscreen. This was one of the first compounds used in sunscreen, but recent reports that it may be linked to causing certain types of cancers have left some consumers worried. Although the FDA, as well as governing agencies in the EU and Canada have evaluated the compound and ruled it as safe, you can find oxybenzone-free sunscreens if you have a concern.
  • Coconut Oil Sunscreen. Islanders in the tropics have been using coconut oil as a natural sunscreen for centuries. Now holistic science has brought this natural sunscreen to the mainstream by offering coconut oil sunscreens. This is a good option if you’re looking for an organic sunscreen.
  • Mineral-Based Sunscreen. These are another organic sunscreen alternative, because they use a combination of natural minerals in place of chemical compounds. Many mineral-based sunscreens are used by consumers who want a 100% natural or organic sunscreen.
  • Aloe Vera Sunscreen. Although you may already know of its sunburn-soothing effects, what you may not know is aloe vera is also a natural UV reflector. It diffuses UV rays so the full intensity can’t reach your skin. Natural and organic sunscreens may use aloe vera as a base or you can find aloe vera sunscreens if you specifically want something that soothes and protects.