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Sunscreen Ingredients

Sunscreen Basics

By

Updated June 14, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Father Putting Sunscreen on Little Girl
Fuse/Getty Images

To get effective sun protection, kids need to use a sunscreen or sunblock that blocks both UVA rays and UVB rays.

This would mean properly using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF 15 or SPF 30.

Sunscreen Ingredients

Sunscreen ingredients of broad-spectrum sunscreens that provide protection against both UVA rays and UVB rays usually include one or more of these ingredients:

  • Benzophenones (Oxybenzone, Dioxybenzone, Sulisobenzone)
  • Menthyl anthranilate, also known as Meradimate
  • Mexoryl SX, also known as Ecamsule
  • Titanium Dioxide
  • Zinc Oxide

Other sunscreen ingredients only provide protection against either UVA rays or UVB rays, which is why many of the best sunscreens include multiple ingredients -- that way they can truly offer broad-spectrum protection.

Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, for example, lists five active ingredients, including Avobenzone (UVA only), Homosalate (UVB only), Octisalate (UVB only), Octocrylene (UVB only), and Oxybenzone (UVA and UVB).

UVA Sunscreen Ingredients

A sunscreen that blocks UVA rays should contain one or more of these ingredients (ingredients in bold provide minimal or limited additional UVB protection):

  • Avobenzone
  • Benzophenones (Oxybenzone, Dioxybenzone, Sulisobenzone)
  • Mexoryl SX, also known as Ecamsule
  • Menthyl anthranilate, also known as Meradimate
  • Titanium Dioxide
  • Zinc Oxide

Of these, Avobenzone, Mexoryl SX, and Zinc Oxide, provide the most extensive UVA protection and at least one should be in a good broad-spectrum sunscreen.

UVB Sunscreen Ingredients

A sunscreen that blocks UVB rays should contain one or more of these ingredients (ingredients in bold provide minimal or limited additional UVA protection):

  • Aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Benzophenones (Oxybenzone, Dioxybenzone, Sulisobenzone)
  • Cinnamates (Cinoxate, Octocrylene, Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
  • Menthyl anthranilate, also known as Meradimate
  • Mexoryl SX, also known as Ecamsule
  • Salicylates (Homosalate, Octisalate, Trolamine Salicylate, Octisalate)
  • Padimate 0
  • Phenylbenzimidazole
  • Titanium Dioxide
  • Zinc Oxide

These sunscreen ingredients all provide extensive UVB protection.

What You Need To Know

Other helpful things to know about sunscreen ingredients include that:

  • Mexoryl SX is the newest sunscreen ingredient approved by the FDA. It provides broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays and was previously only available in Europe for many years. It is only available in high-end sunscreens, such as La Roche Posay Anthelios XL SPF 50 Cream and Lancome UV Expert 20.
  • Helioplex is a name brand for a a sunscreen stabilizer that makes sunscreen ingredients more photostable, so that they don't break down when exposed to the sun.
  • Unlike all of the other chemical sunscreen ingredients, which absorb the sun's rays, Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are physical sunscreens that actually reflect the UVA and UVB rays of the sun. Newer micronized versions of these sunscreen ingredients have made them popular again.
  • If your child has sensitive skin, use a sunscreen that is PABA-free, fragrance free, and hypoallergenic. A physical sunscreen, with either Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide might also be a good choice, instead of a sunscreen with chemical ingredients.
  • Of these sunscreen ingredients, the ones that may concern some parents include retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) and oxybenzone. Although many experts already think they are safe, it is a common sunscreen controversy, and some parents choose to avoid them by looking for sunscreens with different ingredients.


Sources:

Auerbach: Wilderness Medicine, 5th ed.

Ramirez R. Practical guide to sun protection. Surg Clin North Am - 01-FEB-2003; 83(1): 97-107.

US EPA. Sun. The Burning Facts. September 2006. Accessed July 2010.

US FDA. Sun Protection April 2009. Accessed July 2010.

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