Are all sunscreens essentially the same?

Not all sunscreens are alike. Sunscreen acts as a topical cream, lotion or spray that can be applied to skin to protect against sunburn. The two main types of sunscreen are either organic or inorganic compounds. Many sunscreens contain a combination of each. Organic sunscreens are chemical compounds that can absorb damaging UV light rays from the sun to prevent the from damaging skin. Inorganic sunscreens are mineral compounds such as zinc oxide that act by blocking and scattering light rays. There are myriad combinations of sunscreens with varying SPF, or sun protection factor, as well as formulations that may be oil-based, glycerin-based or ethanol-based. Individuals with fair skin may need a formula with a higher SPF. People with sensitive skin, and small children over 6 months of age, may need to find less irritating formulas.
Not all sunscreens are the same. The most obvious difference is the sun protection factor (SPF) rating, which may range from 2 to 50 or higher and indicates how much protection the product offers against UVB rays. Some products also protect against UVA rays. These are known as broad-spectrum sunscreens. Ingredients that protect against UVA rays include avobenzone, cinoxate, ecamsule, menthyl anthranilate, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate, oxybenzone and sulisobenzone. Dermatologists recommend that everyone use a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher to prevent sunburn, age spots and skin cancers.

Sunscreens also come in different forms, including ointments, creams, gels, lotions, sprays and wax sticks. Most sunscreens completely wear off after two hours. That's why you have to keep re-applying sunscreen when you spend a day outdoors. There is also a difference between sunscreen and sunblock, with sunblock being more effective. Sunblocks are usually made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and are broad spectrum as well.

Use a sunscreen and wear protective clothing to safeguard your skin from the sun’s harmful rays.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
No, there are some important characteristics that distinguish one sunscreen and the protection it provides from another. Adequate protection requires a sunscreen with a minimum SPF rating of 15 and protection against both UVA and UVB rays.  Watch the animation to learn more about protecting your skin from the sun.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.