Active Ingredients in Sunscreen Products

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! :)

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  1. Marloes says

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

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      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. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

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

  2. Alejandra says

    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 says

      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.

  3. says

    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! :)
    Jean´s last blog post ..Acure Organics Radical Resurfacing Facial Lotion ReviewMy Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      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. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

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

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      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.

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