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Sun Care

Decoding Sunscreen Lingo + Some Of Our Favorites


May 17, 2016

We know you’re savvy about what sunscreen you’re putting on your face, but don’t let the word “chemical” trigger your alarms when it comes to sunscreen. Most sunscreens contain chemicals—natural or synthetic—but some contain organic elements too. Others feature a combination of both. Like most cosmetics, sunscreen can’t be easily broken down into “chemical” and “natural” categories, but you can certainly explore its contents, and your options, to soothe both your worries and your skin.

Actually, the two most distinct categories of sunscreen aren’t chemical and natural, but rather chemical and physical. Most modern sunscreens feature laboratory-made carbon compounds that chemically absorb the sun’s UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work by being absorbed into your skin. Meanwhile physical sunscreens will sit on top of your skin, using the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect sun rays from your skin. These creams used to be known for the white residue they left behind, but as you probably know, nowadays they’re processed so they go on clear. 


Although mineral-based sunscreens are technically inorganic, minerals have a rich history of skin care uses and are typically safe. Minerals are a “physical” sunscreen. Again, “mineral” usually refers to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Unfortunately, these chemical compounds are technically labeled “inorganic” because they do not contain carbon atoms in their overall structure. For example, popular mineral sunscreen Coola can only claim they are 70% “organic” because of this mineral content. 

Related: 5 Sunscreen Myths Debunked 

Although mineral-based sunscreens are inorganic, minerals have a rich history of skin care uses and are typically safe. Make sure your physical sunscreen features coated minerals, or minerals that are coated with inert chemicals to improve ease of application, enhance sun protection and prevent the titanium dioxide from reacting with other chemicals in the presence of sunlight, thus increasing the sunscreen’s stability and effectiveness. And don’t choose your sunscreen by searching for the word “organic” or “natural”—instead look for the words “mineral” and “physical.”


While no single, all-natural ingredient has been known to block harmful UV rays, they can work in conjunction with chemical or physical sunscreen ingredients to reduce sun damage. Keep an eye out for additional natural ingredients in your suncare that help ward off the effects of UV rays, such as free-radical fighting ingredients vitamin E, grapeseed derivatives, quercetin, and green or black tea leaves.

Related: 9 Best Sunscreens for Year-Round Protection


When it comes to decoding your product labels, keep an eye out for inactive ingredients as well. Inactives make up about half of the average container of sunscreen and can contain allergens. Common ingredients that cause issues include oxybenzone and the preservative methylisothiazolinone. Remember that anything with any of the following ingredients is likely a chemical sunscreen: avobenzone, oxybenzone, Mexoryl SX and SL, octocrylene, homosalate and octisalate.


Almost any dermatologist will tell you that sunscreen with a physical component is superior. SuperGoop’s Skin Soothing Mineral Sunscreen SPF 40 delivers super broad spectrum UV protection with a delicate touch. It was developed with olive polyphenols, and it’s rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (which we just wrote about as being essential in your skincare, and now it’s in your SPF!). This is a great formula for those prone to redness, irritation and inflammation. Drunk Elephant’s Umbra Sheer Physical Defense SPF 30 is also chock full of zinc, a physical sunscreen, while also filled with green tea, salicylic acid, aloe vera, antioxidants, and lactic acid.

Charlotte’s Book expert dermatologist Dr. Doris Day says for the summer she loves Colorescience Sunforgettable Sunscreen Powder SPF 50. “It’s always in my bag and great for re-application over makeup. I apply it to my face, neck, chest, and back of my hands. I haven’t had an issue with patients complaining of breakouts, worsening of melasma, or sunburns. It’s a physical protector (vs. chemical) that is mineral based. 
I’m also a big fan of EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46, and I find that it works great for all skin types, especially for my patients with acne,” she says.

Dr. Tracy Pfeifer loves ZOSkinHealth Oclipse Smart Tone, $70. “ZOSkinHealth Oclipse Smart Tone SPF 50 is amazing. It has microbeads, which, as you massage the product into your skin, start to feel very silky and give the skin a hint of color! It’s made with melanin as one of its active ingredients, which is really cool because melanin is natural SPF.”


First and foremost, avoid spray-on sunscreen. Spray products pose the risk of inhaling particulates while also not going on evenly. Creams often pack the perk of added moisturizers and usually give a more even protection. When it comes to sunscreen, one statement garners no debate: wear it daily and reapply it every few hours. As if we needed to remind you, daily use of sunscreen slows down the skin’s aging process and encourages firmer, less wrinkled and more pliable skin. Stay youthful with an SPF of 30 or above, and choose a broad-spectrum product. This means it will block the three different types of UV rays responsible for sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. When it comes to your morning routine, always apply sunscreen after all your other skin care products. This should always be the last step before your makeup.

Photo via Flickr


Here’s how sunscreen can go wrong: these are the mistakes you’re making.
Plus, the upside of sun exposure (just a little)!


 Learn more about Dr. Doris Day and Dr. Tracy Pfeifer: read client reviews, book appointments, and get expert advice. Only the best cosmetic doctors, skincare gurus, nutritionists, fitness and wellness professionals make it into our book.  

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