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Sunscreen 101

The day the headlines hit, about Hawaii “banning sunscreen”,  social media was buzzing! Everyone was in shock, especially since it was the beginning of Skin Cancer Awareness Month! 😳 

The reality is that only certain chemical ingredients found in many “chemical” sunscreens were banned because of the damage they are causing the ocean ecosystems. (Can you imagine the damage they are causing the humans?!) “Physical” sunscreens do not contain those ingredients, so they are considered safe for all...clear as a tube of Desitin? 

If you’ve been confused about what physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreen is, here’s a little Sunscreen 101:



Physical sunscreen, mineral sunscreen, and sunblock are all referring to  physical UV filters that sit on top of the skin and reflect, scatter and block the sun’s rays before they can penetrate. These active minerals also reflect heat, making them a great choice for those struggling with rosacea, melasma, and other skin conditions that are aggravated by heat.  

The ingredients you want in these physical sunscreens are Titanium Dioxide and/or Zinc Oxide, as they are the only physical UV filters that have been approved by the FDA for sun protection. They are also the least likely to cause adverse skin reactions, so those with sensitive skin typically use hypoallergenic sunscreens that use these as active ingredients.  

Chemical sunscreens work totally different.... These types of sunscreen have ingredients designed to absorb UV radiation from the sun, which catalyzes a reaction that changes UV rays into heat, which is then released from the skin. Yikes! They often only protect against UVA or UVB rays, but not both. (physical UV filters block both!)  

The most common active ingredients in these chemical sunscreens are:

  • Avobenzone: Most commonly used UVA chemical filter found in chemical sunscreens. It’s unstable, meaning it quickly degrades in sunlight.
  • Octinoxate: This chemical filter is absorbed rapidly into the skin, and is a known endocrine disruptor that can affect thyroid function.
  • Octisalate:  Octisalate does help absorb UVB rays (but not UVA rays), but it’s also a penetration enhancer, meaning it increases the amount of other ingredients that pass into your skin. If a chemical sunscreen contains hazardous ingredients, they are more likely to pass into the body when this ingredient is present in the formula.
  • Oxybenzone: This chemical UV filter absorbs UVB and UVA rays, but it is a photosensitizer, meaning it increases the body’s production of free radicals after sun exposure. It’s also been implicated as a hormone disruptor, and may affect the production of estrogen in the body.
  • Octocrylene: This chemical UV filter can absorb both UVB and UVA rays, but like Oxybenzone, it also increases the production of free radicals after being exposed to the sun.

So, in addition to the undesirable chemicals absorbing into your body, these chemical sunscreens just aren’t even as effective as the mineral at protecting against uv damage. (Though probably still a tad more than the baby oil we used to slather on in the 80’s!) 

So....what about SPF? What is that all about?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, which  explains how well a sunscreen guards against one type of UV radiation, called UVB These rays cause sunburn and several types of skin cancer. 

The other familiar sounding radiation, called UVA radiation, goes deeper into the skin and can cause premature wrinkling, age spots and can also increase risk for skin cancers. This is why you want a sunscreen that is labeled broad spectrum. 

Since some UV radiation still gets through the sunscreen, the SPF number refers to roughly how long it will take for a person's skin to turn red. (I’m at 5 seconds over here!) Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will prevent your skin from getting red for approximately 15 times longer than usual (so if you start to burn in 10 minutes, sunscreen with SPF 15 will prevent burning for about 150 minutes, or 2.5 hours), according to the American Academy of Dermatology. However; since sunscreen tends to rub or wash off, (or people don’t use enough!)  the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends reapplying sunscreen within two hours regardless of its strength, and using at least an ounce (a shot glass-full) for maximum protection. Maybe if you aren’t sweating or swimming you could last a bit longer, but not with a chemical sunscreen, because they become less effective as the sun breaks them down on your skin. 

Hopefully that quick bit of info clears a few things up! Either type of sunscreen is better than none at all, but my preference is mineral....with lots of shade to hang out in too! Check out my favorites at











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