We all know that we should use a sunscreen that protects us from both UVA and UVB rays. But how do we know if our sunscreen offers broad spectrum protection? After all, the SPF number on the bottle only refers to the protection you get against UVB rays and so there’s no way of knowing if it will protect us from the UVA ones as well, unless we look at the ingredient list.
So I decided to put together this list of common active ingredients used in sunscreens to briefly explain from what kind of UV rays they protect against, and that you can quickly consult to know if the sunscreen you’re using or planning to buy offers adequate protection:
Avobenzone: also called Parsol 1789 or Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane, it protects against the entire UVA range. However, it degrades quickly when exposed to light, and for this reason it should be used in products that also contain photostabilizing ingredients such as Octocrylene, Mexoryl, or Tinosorb.
Benzophenones: they are a group of sunscreen ingredients that include Oxybenzone, Methanone, Benzophenone-3 and any other ingredient that ends in “benzone” or “benzophenone”. They offer UVB and some UVA protection but could cause contact dermatitis in some people.
Cinoxate: a sunscreen agent that offers full UVB and little UVA protection.
Ensulizole: also called Phenylbenzimidazole Sulfonic Acid, it provides UVB and minimal UVA protection. For this reason, it still needs to be used with other sunscreen agents that protect against UVA rays. It is water-soluble and thus feels light on the skin.
Homosalate: a sunscreen agent that protects skin from UVB rays. It also offers very minimal protection against UVA rays and therefore needs to be paired with other sunscreen ingredients to provide full-spectrum protection. This ingredient can be used only in concentration up to 10%.
Menthyl Anthranilate: also knows as Meradimate, it protects from some, but not all UVA rays. It is rarely used in the USA and not permitted to be used in Europe and Japan.
Mexoryl SX: also called Ecamsule and terephthalylidine dicamphor sulfonic acid, this ingredient was developed and patented by L’Oreal (and can thus be found only in products made by this company). It protects against UVA rays and degrades more slowly when exposed to sunlight than other ingredients like Avobenzone. It is often used with Mexoryl XL.
Mexoryl XL: also called Drometrizole Trisiloxane, it was developed and patented by L’Oreal too, and can thus be found in their products only. It protects against UVB rays. Because it is oil soluble, it is a good option for extended outdoors activities. It is often used with Mexoryl SX.
Octinoxate: also called Octyl Methoxycinnamate, this oil soluble chemical sunscreen agent protects skin from UVB rays. It is a very common ingredient used in sunscreen products but some studies have raised concerns that it can generate free radical damage. Further research on these claims is still needed though.
Octisalate: also called octyl salicylate and ethylhexyl salicylate, this ingredient protects only against UVB rays.
Octocrylene: a weak ingredient that protects against UVB rays. It also helps to stabilize Avobenzone but can cause irritations in some people.
Tinosorb: Tinosorb S (bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine) and Tinosorb M (methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol) offer protection against the all UVA and some UVB rays. Tinosorb S is water soluble while Tinosorb M is oil soluble but both are photostable and can also partly prevent the degradation of other sunscreen ingredients, such as Avobenzone. Widely used in Europe and Australia, for some reason they haven’t been approved by the FDA yet.
Titanium Dioxide: a physical sunscreen agent that protects against the entire UVB range but only half of the UVA range. Because Titanium Dioxide is a white mineral, it can leave a white cast on skin, so make sure you blend it in very well.
Trolamine Salicylate: a sunscreen agents that offers protection only against UVB rays.
Zinc Oxide: a physical sunscreen agent that protects against the whole UVA and UVB spectrum. That’s why Zinc Oxide is considered to be the best sunscreen ingredient available (and my favourite too), although, just like Titanium Dioxide, it can leave an unappealing white cast on skin, so blend it in well! Also, to be effective on its own, it needs to be used in concentrations of at least 16%. If used in lower amounts, other sunscreen agents are needed to offer broad spectrum protection.
I hope you found this boring list helpful and if you’re not sure your sunscreen offers broad spectrum protection, go check it now!