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Sunblock versus Sunscreen

Sunblock Versus Sunscreen - What’s the Difference?

People often get confused about the differences between sunblock versus sunscreen.  To the casual observer, they’re interchangeable. Turns out, they’re two very different types of sun protection.


With a wide array of products available and all these terms on the label - broad spectrum, water resistant, SPF, etc - it can be very confusing.  Which do you need and which will work best for you?


To help you choose the right type of sun protection, we’ll discuss their main differences and uses in this article.

Why Do You Need Sun Protection?

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Before diving into the topic of sunblock and sunscreen differences, let’s talk about why you need sun protection in the first place. What happens to your skin if you skip your sunblock or sunscreen?


While our body definitely needs sunlight, the rays of the light that the sun gives off can also harm us. These are known as UV (ultraviolet) rays, and are further broken down into UVA, UVB and UVC rays. 


We get exposed to UVA rays the most.  UVB rays have higher energy levels and are more intense.  UVC rays are the most intense. Luckily, the ozone layer blocks these rays.


When we get exposed to the sun, UV rays go through our skin. The epidermis or the outer skin layer has a pigment called melanin which protects our skin.  This makes your skin darken or tan as it defends itself against UV rays. 


Too much sun exposure allows UV rays, particularly UVB rays, to reach your inner skin layers. When this happens, sunburn ensues.


While we may blame only age for our rough, dry skin and wrinkles, it’s actually the combination of aging and sun exposure that causes this.  


Here are the things that can happen to your skin when you skip sun protection:


  • Sunspots. The skin becomes hyperpigmented.  Going unprotected speeds up the effects of aging.


  • Telangiectasias (aka spider veins). UV exposure causes broken blood vessels.


  • Wrinkles. Not wearing sun protection can damage your skin’s collagen and elastin. This leads to loss of elasticity, and subsequently, to wrinkling. 


  • Painful Burns. While a tanned look gives you a healthy glow, overdoing it without sun protection can lead to severe sunburns with blistering. This can be very painful and may require pain and anti inflammatory medications. 

Scarring. Some people have disorders that make them extra sensitive to the sun. It can exacerbate their disorder and may lead to skin scarring.

Sunblock Versus Sunscreen - What is Sunblock?

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The main difference between sunblock and sunscreen is in the way they protect you against skin damaging UV rays. 


By the name of the product itself, you could guess that sunblock protects your skin by forming a physical shield and literally “blocking” UV rays.  It sits on top of your skin and reflects the sun’s rays as they hit the skin. 


Sunblocks typically have zinc oxide or titanium oxide as active ingredients. These ingredients are currently the only ones that meet FDA’s requirements to be labeled as Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective, or GRASE.  Zinc oxide and titanium oxide are considered to be more environmentally safe, especially for coral reefs (more on this later).


Sunblocks are also typically thicker than sunscreens. You may notice that they stay opaque and noticeable when you put it on.  Since they’re essentially a “physical” sun protection, the ingredients in sunblocks form a thick formula to provide that barrier against the UVA and UVB rays.


While you may not like the “white cast” that sunblocks leave, you need to apply sunblocks generously to all areas of the skin exposed to the sun for them to do their job effectively.  It’s better to apply liberally than to skimp. 


It’s also important to remember to apply sunblocks evenly to avoid UV light reaching certain parts of the skin, no matter how small the area is.


If you have sensitive, acne-prone skin or suffer from rosacea, sunblocks are a better choice over sunscreens.

A note on sunblocks. The term sunblock is no longer allowed by the FDA.  In 2013, the FDA made it illegal to use the term on labels because it gives users a false sense of security when spending time under the sun. Therefore, sunblocks are now known as Mineral Sunscreens.

Sunblock Versus Sunscreen - What is Sunscreen?

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Compared to sunblocks (or mineral sunscreens) which offer physical protection, sunscreens offer chemical defense.  They contain ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) that absorb the sun’s rays before they reach and damage the dermal layers.  


More information is needed on the safety of these ingredients, according to the FDA, however, this does not indicate that they are dangerous.  It only means that more evidence is needed.  Having said this, the FDA likewise gives it’s clearance to keep using sunscreens with these ingredients. 


People with skin conditions or those who are allergy-prone should avoid products that contain fragrances, preservatives, and PABA or oxybenzone, ingredients often found in sunscreens. 


Sunscreens or, more specifically, chemical sunscreens are easier to apply to the skin and do not leave a white residue ike mineral sunsreens (“sunblocks”). 


While an even application is needed for sunblocks, it’s not as crucial for sunscreens.  What’s important is to allow them to be absorbed by the skin before going out into the sun. Typically, a 30 minute wait is the rule.  It’s also important to apply a liberal amount - about an ounce minimum for everyday use. 


In addition, sunscreens tend to break down after prolonged exposure under the sun. Because of this, it’s recommended to reapply sunscreen every two to three hours to ensure you’re protected while out and about.

Sunblock Versus Sunscreen - Which Do You Choose?

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Whether you go with a sunblock (mineral sunscreen) or a sunscreen (chemical sunscreen), it’s important to read the label first. Here are your important considerations:


  • It should give you the protection you need


  • You are not sensitive to any of the active ingredients in the product


When choosing sunblock versus sunscreen, consider these other factors as well.


Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

When choosing a sun protection product, it’s important to look at the SPF or sun protection factor.  SPF is the estimated amount of UV radiation protection that the product can give you.  However, SPF only refers to the level of protection against damage caused by UVB light and not UVA radiation. 


Choosing a sun protection product that has higher SPF gives you more protection and lessens the chance of getting a sunburn.  Experts suggest getting a product with SPF 30 or higher.


What exactly do the numbers after the SPF mean?


The number indicates the amount of time it takes for the skin to redden upon exposure to the sun with protection versus the amount of time of unprotected exposure. 


Therefore, an SPF 30 product means that it will take the sun 30 times longer to burn the skin with protection than when skin is exposed without protection.  So, if your skin reddens in 10 minutes without protection, an SPF-30-labeled product would protect your skin for 300 minutes without burning. 


Broad Spectrum

When shopping for a sun protection product, SPF is important, however, this only indicates protection against UVB rays.  Look for a product that says BROAD SPECTRUM in the label.


This indicates that the product is designed to protect your skin against UVA as well as UVB rays.  It means it can protect you against sunburn as well as shield you against wrinkle-causing UVA rays.

Water Resistance Factor

Just as the term sunblock is no longer allowed by FDA, the term waterproof has also been disallowed. 


Instead, look for the term water resistant. Your sun protection product must indicate whether it’s effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes after swimming or sweating. 


Reef Friendly

Certain ingredients in a chemical sunscreen have been linked to coral reef damage. In particular, products that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate are no longer allowed to be sold in Hawaii and Key West, Florida, because of this reason. 


Therefore, if you are planning to vacation in areas where there are coral reefs or if you live near them, you may want to choose a sunblock that contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide instead. 

Protection, Protection, Protection - Call Skin Theory for Help

We cannot overemphasize the importance of putting on a sun protection product each time you step out into the sun. In choosing your product, take time to read the labels before purchasing and using it. 


  • Choose a product with SPF 30 or higher


  • Go with broad spectrum protection - anti sunburn and anti aging


  • Choose a water resistant product 


  • Avoid products that may contain ingredients that your skin is sensitive to


If you need more advice on skin care and protection, call or visit Skin Theory Aesthetics today.

We specialize in aesthetic cosmetic treatments for your skin, body, and spirit.  Our specialists take time to listen to you to learn your needs and concerns. We give you a personalized treatment program so you get the best Skin Theory experience!


Call to book now at (951) 735-5570.

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