Without thinking twice, you grab a bottle of sunscreen and lather up before hitting the beach. Later, when you’re basking in the warm sunshine but not getting burnt, you might ask yourself, “How does sunscreen work, anyway?”

You know that somehow it protects your skin from the harmful rays of the sun and helps keep you from getting burnt to a crisp.

But knowing how it does its job is important and can help you choose a safe, effective sunscreen that will protect your whole family.

The way sunscreen works has everything to do with its two types of ingredients: active ingredients and inactive ingredients. Let’s start with active ingredients.

How Does Sunscreen Work: The Active Ingredients

Very simply, active ingredients are what actually do the work of protecting your skin by fighting off the ultraviolet rays from the sun.

So, when you ask the question, “How does sunscreen work?” what you’re really wondering is, “How do the active ingredients keep me from getting sunburn or sun damage?” Good question. We’re glad you asked!

We’ll answer it by telling you about the two different types of sunscreens — chemical and mineral — and how their active ingredients do their job.

Mom apply sunscreen and showing kids how does sunscreen work

Chemical Sunscreen

First of all, what are the active ingredients used in chemical sunscreens? Avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone, just to give you a few examples.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tells us, “Most approved ingredients filter only a portion of the UV spectrum. Sunscreen formulators typically mix one to six ingredients to create products that offer varying degrees of protection across the UV spectrum.”

Now let’s talk about how these ingredients offer that protection.

When you apply chemical sunscreen, the ingredients soak into your skin and cause a chemical reaction when the UV rays from the sun hit. The rays are converted into heat energy, which is then released.

It’s easy to remember how chemical sunscreen works because it’s right there in the name: there’s a chemical reaction.

So, to sum up, chemical sunscreen fights off harmful UV rays by absorbing and converting them so they don’t damage your skin.

man at the pool applying spray sunscreen on

But there’s one more thing to mention about chemical sunscreen before we move on to mineral sunscreen.

While one of the common active ingredients, oxybenzone, protects your skin from the sun, it isn’t good for the rest of your body or the ocean’s coral reefs.

Oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor in the human body. Additionally, when you take a dip in the ocean and your sunscreen washes off, it contributes to coral reef bleaching. Not ideal, to say the least.

We have similar concerns about many of the other ingredients in chemical sunscreens. That being said, let’s move on to mineral sunscreen and see how it works.

Mineral Sunscreen

Learning about mineral sunscreen is a bit easier because there are only two active ingredients used: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. A mineral sunscreen may contain one or both of them.

How does mineral sunscreen work differently than chemical sunscreen? With mineral sunscreen, the active ingredients don’t absorb into your skin.

Instead, they sit on top of your skin and reflect, absorb, and scatter the UV rays to keep you safe in the sun.

Mineral sunscreen is sometimes called physical sunscreen because that’s just the sort of protection it provides. It is a physical barrier that blocks and absorbs the sun rather than causing the reaction that happens with chemical sunscreen.

Non-Nano Zinc Oxide is our favorite active ingredient of all because it won’t find its way into your bloodstream, doesn’t harm the coral reefs, and provides broad-spectrum protection all by itself!

That’s why we created Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30. Made with 19% Zinc Oxide, this mineral sunscreen provides safe, effective sun protection and is gentle enough for babies and kiddos! And, unlike other mineral sunscreens, it goes on clear.

 Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

Speaking of the broad-spectrum protection that Non-Nano Zinc oxide provides, let’s clear up a few words that are, for most people, a bunch of sunscreen mumbo-jumbo: UVA, UVB, broad-spectrum, and SPF.

What’s The Deal With UVA, UVB, Broad-Spectrum, And SPF?

If these abbreviations and words seem like Greek to you, you’re not alone. Lots of people don’t know up from down when it comes to these terms! Let us help.

UVA, UVB, And Broad-Spectrum

The sun emits ultraviolet rays called UVA, UVB, and UVC. You can forget about UVC rays because they don’t make it past the earth’s ozone layer.

So here on planet earth, all we are dealing with are UVA and UVB rays. And you need protection from both of them.

As we mentioned, some active ingredients only provide protection from UVA or UVB, while others ward off both types of rays. You need protection from the whole spectrum of ultraviolet rays to stay safe in the sun.

That’s where “broad-spectrum” comes in. Broad-spectrum on the label means the sunscreen offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

That can be done in two ways. Some sunscreens are made with more than one active ingredient in order to provide broad-spectrum protection. This is most common with chemical sunscreens.

However, many mineral sunscreens are made with only one active ingredient: Zinc Oxide. That’s because, as we mentioned earlier, this one amazing ingredient provides all the UVA and UVB protection you need.

Where does SPF come into the picture?

mom helping kid to get into the pool


SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” The only thing most people know about SPF is that they should look for a relatively high number.

However, SPF only indicates the level of protection from UVB rays and has nothing to do with UVA rays. And, as you’ve now learned, you need protection from both.

The Skin Cancer Foundation says, “The SPF has to do with what percentage of UVB rays make their way through the sunscreen to your skin — the higher the SPF, the lower the percentage of rays that will hit your skin.”

We recommend sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, but the important thing to keep in mind is that SPF alone doesn’t make you invincible!

Even if you have a super-high SPF, that still doesn’t mean it’s OK to spend hour after hour in the blazing sun. You should also use other sun protection measures and check the UV Index in your area.

How Does Sunscreen Work: The Inactive Ingredients

We’ve gone over how active ingredients in sunscreen protect your skin from UV rays, but there are a lot of other ingredients in a bottle of sunscreen! What are they there for?

The inactive ingredients have to do with the texture of the sunscreen, how easily the sunscreen spreads onto your skin, how it smells, and its shelf-life (yes, sunscreen can go bad!).

While the inactive ingredients don’t directly offer sun protection, they do affect how easily the sunscreen spreads onto your skin and how long it stays on. And that affects its coverage and protection.

In their list of inactive ingredients, many sunscreens contain preservatives and synthetic fragrances, which can be irritating, especially to sensitive skin.

The EWG discusses one specific preservative: “One ingredient in particular is a cause for concern: the preservative methylisothiazolinone... Lab studies indicate that methylisothiazolinone is a skin sensitizer or allergen.”

In addition to a sunscreen that provides great sun protection, you want one with inactive ingredients that won’t irritate your skin or harm your body!

woman thinking how does sunscreen work

Natural Inactive Ingredients

When it comes to inactive sunscreen ingredients, say no to preservatives (like methylisothiazolinone) and fragrances (usually listed as “fragrance” or “parfum”) and yes to natural ingredients like:

The cool thing about sunscreen is that if you choose the right one, it can deliver all sorts of good nutrients to your skin while protecting it from the sun at the same time!

For example, Babo Botanicals’s Daily Sheer Tinted Facial Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 contains Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide as active ingredients, as well as some powerhouse inactive ingredients!

It includes a Nutri-Firm™ Complex of Kahai, Sea Buckthorn, and Argan Oil that is packed with powerful antioxidants, omegas, and Vitamin C. It’s also enriched with anti-aging Hyaluronic Acid.

Talk about a multi-tasking sunblock!

Babo Botanicals’s Daily Sheer Tinted Facial Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Put Your Sunscreen To Work!

Now that you know how both chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens work, you’ll understand what’s happening on your skin every time you lather up and head outside.

Armed with that knowledge, choose the sunscreen that best suits the needs of your family, your outdoor adventures, and your skin type.

For safe, effective protection, we recommend a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen, like Babo Botanicals’s Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 that fights UVA and UVB rays with Zinc Oxide and is loaded with natural, skin-healthy inactive ingredients.

Put your sunscreen to work protecting you from the sun so you and your family can get busy enjoying the great outdoors!