Wearing sunscreen every day is important for a myriad of reasons. Sunscreen protects your skin from harmful UV rays, which can cause premature aging, discoloration, dark spots, and even skin cancer. 

We all know how important wearing sunscreen is, but how does sunscreen work?

The way sunscreen works depends on the type of sunscreen that you’re using. There are two types of sunscreen that you can use: chemical sunscreen and physical mineral sunscreen. Both types of sunscreen work in different ways to block UV rays and protect your skin from the sun.

In this article, we’ll be explaining in more detail the science behind sunscreen and the difference between physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. We’ll be answering important questions about sunscreen, like “how does sunblock work?” and “how do you choose sunscreen?”. To learn more about how sunblock works and how to properly use sunscreen to protect your skin, continue reading this article or use the links below to skip to a section of your choice.

The Science Behind Sunscreen

Before we get into how sunscreen works, let’s go over the two types of sunscreen and how they differ. According to MD Anderson, there are two types of sunscreen ingredients: Physical blockers and chemical absorbers. These sunscreens protect your skin from UV rays in different ways:

  • Chemical sunscreen contains active ingredients which are designed to absorb UV radiation when it’s applied. Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin and then absorbs UV rays, which are then converted into heat and released from the body to provide adequate UV protection.
  • Physical sunscreen contains the active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which sit on top of the skin to block UV rays. Physical sunscreen essentially creates a barrier on the skin which shields your skin from UV rays to prevent sun damage.

Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreen contains active ingredients that are designed to absorb UV radiation as soon as you put it on. Chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds that cause a chemical reaction when exposed to the sun. This chemical reaction turns UV rays into heat, which are then released from the skin.

When you use a chemical sunscreen, the cream gets absorbed into your skin, working its chemical magic to soak up the rays so they don’t damage your skin.

Avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone are some of the active ingredients used in chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens are also typically easier to rub into the skin and won’t leave a white cast.

Physical Sunscreens

Physical sunscreens (or “sunblocks”) are just what they sound like. They sit on the surface of your skin, providing a physical barrier that protects (blocks) your skin from the sun. Physical sunscreens are also sometimes called mineral sunscreens.

These sunscreens are considered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to be safer and more stable in sunlight.

The active ingredients in these physical sunblocks? Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, physical sunscreens are best if you have sensitive skin because the ingredients are less irritating on the skin.

How To Use Sunscreen

For complete sun protection, you need to wear sunscreen. Sunscreen is important for a myriad of reasons. Not only does sunscreen protect you from sunburn, but it also reduces your risk of developing skin cancer and prevents early signs of aging. But you can’t just wear any old sunscreen. You need to wear safe sunscreen that has a high SPF and provides broad-spectrum coverage.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, you should wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or higher any time you’re going outdoors. You should also put on sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours in order to guarantee full coverage. 

The sunscreen you put on you and your kids’ bodies day in and day out doesn’t just evaporate into thin air. Where does that white, skin-protecting cream go?

It’s either absorbed into your body, washed off into the water you swim in, or both. That’s precisely why safe sunscreen matters. Because when sunscreen absorbs into your skin, it can directly impact your health.

And when sunscreen washes off into the ocean water you swim in, it affects the coral reefs, the fish, and other sea creatures (which, in turn, affects us if we eat them!).

For example, there is particular concern about oxybenzone, an ingredient commonly used in certain types of sunscreens.

When this ingredient gets absorbed into the human body, it can pass through the placental barrier and end up in a mother’s breast milk. It can also disrupt hormone levels for both men and women.

Plus, this chemical is just plain irritating for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions. Not to mention it bleaches the coral reefs.

As you can see, the ingredients in your sunscreen really do matter when it comes to the health and safety of you, your family, and the big, beautiful ocean we splash around in!

The goal is, of course, to use a sunscreen that’s effective (protecting your family from the damaging rays of the sun) and safe (so it won’t harm your body in the process).

So, let’s talk about what’s safe and what’s not, starting with the two different types of sunscreen.

Active Vs. Inactive Ingredients

Sunscreen contains two types of ingredients: active and inactive ingredients. The inactive ingredients in sunscreen include lotions, oils, and water, and they make up the inactive portion of the sunscreen. The active ingredients in sunscreen are the UV filters that actually protect your skin from the sun.

Active sunscreen ingredients can be chemical, mineral, or a combination of both, and inactive sunscreen ingredients can be chemical, natural, or a combination of both.

The active ingredients in sunscreen is what differentiates physical sunscreen from chemical sunscreen. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreen include avobenzone, octinoxate, oxybenzone and other chemicals UV filters.  The active ingredients in physical sunscreen are zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. 

Physical sunscreens are naturally broad-spectrum, meaning they protect against UVA and UVB protection. However, if you’re shopping for chemical sunscreens, you want to choose one that contains oxybenzone, as that is what will protect skin UVA and UVB rays.

Tips For Choosing (And Using) Sunscreen

Armed with all that knowledge, you’re ready to walk confidently to the sunscreen aisle and make a good choice! Boiling it all down, here’s a list of tips for choosing and using a safe sunscreen.

1) Choose Mineral Sunscreen

What the FDA and EWG have told us is that the ingredients used in physical sunblocks (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are safe. That means mineral sunscreen is the way to go!

Choose a mineral sunscreen like Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30. Our unique, clear formula is made with zinc oxide and is free of icky oxybenzone.

Packed with skin-soothing organic ingredients such as shea butter, cocoa butter, sunflower seed oil, and coconut oil, our Zinc Sunscreen moisturizes as it protects.

Safe for the reefs. Safe for your family.

2) Don’t Use Sunscreen/Insect-Repellent Combos

Steer clear of sunscreen/insect-repellent combination products. The FDA warns that they’re not considered safe or effective, as the ingredients used in each product can cancel one another out when combined. Yikes!

Instead, apply your chosen sunscreen first, then apply your insect repellent on top. Sunscreen should be reapplied often, while insect repellent generally only needs to be applied every 6 hours or so.

Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions upon application to ensure you receive adequate protection from both the sun and those pesky insects!

3) Choose “Broad-Spectrum” Sunscreen

What we’ve been trained to look for in sunscreen is a high sun protection factor (SPF). But SPF only protects against cancer-causing UVB rays, leaving you unprotected from UVA rays, which can also increase your risk for skin cancer.

While UVB rays are the ones that generally cause sunburn, UVA rays can still penetrate glass, meaning you’re not protected if you’re sitting inside (that includes while driving in the car!).

If you see “broad-spectrum” on the label of your sunscreen, that means it will protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays. That’s what you want!

Choose a sunscreen that’s broad-spectrum, has an SPF of 15 or higher, and is water- and sweat-resistant.

4) Apply Safe Sunscreen Liberally

Don’t skimp when it comes to sunscreen! Many of us don’t apply sunscreen liberally enough, leaving us vulnerable to the sun’s harsh rays.

If you’re new to mineral sunscreen, you may find it’s harder to apply than chemical sunscreen. So lather up, use plenty of it, and make sure you get those hard-to-reach or easy-to-forget areas, such as behind your ears, on your neck, and the tops of your hands and feet.

It’s also important to note that sunscreen can take up to 30 minutes to start working its magic. For this reason, it’s best to apply as soon as you know you’ll be heading out and then give your sunscreen some time to become effective.

We recommend waiting a minimum of 15 minutes after application before going outside.

5) Reapply Frequently

Sunscreen needs to be reapplied at least every 80 minutes, particularly if you’re enjoying water-based activities or if you’re playing sports and sweating a lot.

Tip: towel-dry yourself before lathering on your sunscreen.

Make sunscreen application easy and get the kids back to playing as soon as possible with a spray-on sunscreen, like our Sheer Zinc Continuous Spray Sunscreen SPF 30. Just remember not to spray it directly on the face.

6) Check The Expiration Date

Like all face and body care products, sunscreen does expire. Be sure to check the expiration date on the sunscreen you’ve got hidden away in the closet and throw it out if it’s expired.

If you can’t find an expiration date and you think it may be older than three years, err on the side of caution and trash it!

7) Opt For Baby-Specific Sunscreen For Your Littles

A baby’s skin is far more sensitive than our own, so it’s really important to avoid the sun if at all possible when it comes to your little one.

Using wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves, and opting for shady areas are all great ways to protect your baby from the sun. However, we know there are some times when this just isn’t feasible.

Most recommendations will tell you to avoid sunscreen altogether for little ones under six months. Talk to your pediatrician about the best sun protection for your baby if you’re unsure.

When you do put sunscreen on them, make sure it’s a gentle, baby-friendly version, like Babo Botanicals SPF 50 Baby Sunscreen.

This fragrance-free sunscreen was specially designed for delicate baby skin to ensure your little one doesn’t experience irritation. We created it to be lightweight and fast-absorbing, so you won’t waste any time lathering up!

Made with hydrating ingredients including shea butter and cocoa butter, our Baby Sunscreen will keep your baby safe and protected while having fun in the sun!

We know it can be difficult to apply sunscreen to a slippery, wriggly baby, so our sunscreen comes in a spray as well as a stick for easy application. Whatever works best for you!

Sunscreen FAQs

Here are some helpful FAQs about how sunscreen works so that you can choose the best type of sunscreen for your skin.

How Does Sunscreen Work To Protect Your Skin?

Physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen work in different ways to protect your skin from the sun. Physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin and provides a physical barrier that blocks out UV rays. Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin, and then absorbs UV rays which are converted into heat and then released from the body. While these sunscreens work in different ways, they both protect your skin from harmful UV rays and skin damage.

Can You Still Get A Tan With Sunscreen On?

Yes, you can still get a tan with sunscreen on, but tanning is still considered sun damage! No amount of tanning is considered safe, which is why it’s so important to wear a sufficient amount of sunscreen on a daily basis to prevent sun damage.

Why Does It Take 15 Minutes For Sunscreen To Work?

You should apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun so it has enough time to absorb into your skin to offer optimal protection. This goes for both chemical sunscreen and physical sunscreen. If you put on sunscreen too close to going out in the sun, you are putting yourself more at risk of sun damage.

How Can I Protect My Skin From The Sun Without Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is key to sun protection, but there are additional measures that you should take to protect your skin even more from the sun. In addition to wearing sunscreen, you should also stay in the shade whenever the UV is high, wear protective clothing and hats, and wear sunglasses that block out both UVA and UVB rays. 

Wrapping Up

In order to choose the best type of sunscreen, you need to know how sunscreen works. There are two types of sunscreen that you can use: physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. They both work in different ways to protect your skin from the sun. 

Physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin to block out UV rays, while chemical sunscreen gets absorbed into the skin and converts UV rays into heat, which then gets released by the body. 

So now that we’ve answered important questions about sunscreen, like “how does chemical sunscreen work?” and “what are the active ingredients in sunscreen?”, you can make a more informed decision about which type of sunscreen is right for you.

If you’re looking for effective mineral sunscreens that are made with natural, safe ingredients, you should check out Babo Botanicals. Our sunscreen products are made with plant-based and organic ingredients and do an excellent job at protecting your skin from the sun. They’re safe for the whole family to use, so you can enjoy a summer in the sun without worrying about sun damage.