Sunscreen or Sunblock?

Is There a Difference Between Them?

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Question: Can you please tell me what the difference is between sunscreen and sunblock? Is there a reason why I should use one or the other?

Sunscreens and Sunblocks

Answer: Many people use the words sunscreen and sunblock interchangeably; however they are two entirely different forms of sun protection.

  • Sunscreen, the more commonly used type of sun protectant, filters or screens the sun's ultraviolet¬†(UV) rays. It keeps most rays out but lets some in. It may also be called a chemical sunscreen.
  • Sunblock, on the other hand, physically reflects the sun's rays from the skin, blocking the rays from penetrating the skin. It may be called a physical sunscreen.

Sunscreen and sunblock are both excellent forms of sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology doesn't specify one over the other, so long as the one you choose protects against both UVA and UVB rays, has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or higher, and is water resistant.

What's in Sunscreen and Sunblock?

Each type of sunscreen or sunblock uses different chemicals to protect the skin against the sun's damaging UV rays.

Most sunblocks utilize titanium oxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient, which results in a thicker, opaque consistency. Some consider this to be a disadvantage because the consistency makes it difficult to spread all over the body.

Secondly, many sunblocks are opaque and can be seen on the skin after application.

You may notice people wearing sunblock, especially at the beach, with a streak of sunblock on their noses and other parts of their face. There are some brands, like Neutrogena, which offer a less visible sunblock.

Baby sunscreens are sunblocks that contain only titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. They are appropriate for children aged six months or older, but not for infants younger than six months.

Sunscreens use a variety of chemicals that work to absorb harmful UV rays before they penetrate your skin. Some have active ingredients including oxybenzone or avobenzene. Some people are sensitive or allergic to certain ingredients, like PABA, and choose to use sunblock instead of sunscreen. In fact, many brands today are a blend of sunscreen and sunblock, so it's important to check the label if you have a sensitivity to certain chemicals.

Checking the label is also important if you want to avoid fragrance or oils that are often added to sunscreens. Some sunscreens are also formulated to include insect repellant, either a "natural" type or one based on artificial chemicals. The AAD doesn't recommend using these because sunscreen should be applied liberally and reapplied often, while insect repellant should be used sparingly and less often.

Bottom Line on Sunscreens and Sunblocks

Both sunscreen and sunblock provide protection against the sun. Choosing between the two is a matter of personal preference and necessity if you are sensitive to some ingredients. As long as you choose an SPF of at least 30, the current recommendation from the American Academy of Dermatologists, you are providing adequate protection for your skin.


American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs

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