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What’s Really In Your Sunscreen (And Why It Matters)

Reading the ingredients in sunscreen can be like trying to make sense of the Dothraki language in Game of Thrones. Then you tack on the question of whether your SPF is chemical or physical, and it’s enough to make you throw up your hands and take cover inside. But taking the time to learn about what goes into your sunscreen—and how those formulas can be tailored to your skin concerns—is extremely important, especially if you plan on spending time in the sun this summer. We decoded the most common ingredients, so you can choose the right SPF and bask safely.

Before we distinguish Octinoxate from Oxybenzone, a word on chemical versus physical sunscreens: The former works by sinking into skin and absorbing UV rays, while the latter sits on top of skin to block the sun’s rays and can have a heavier feel or white cast (though with the right formulas, you won’t get that effect.) While there’s been some controversy surrounding certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens—some have been potentially linked to cancer and chemical disruption—many dermatologists say there’s no cause for concern “I don’t warn people away from any of these ingredients,” says Dr. Jennifer Linder, a dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon. What’s far more important, she says, is that we stay vigilant against UV rays, which are proven to cause skin cancer. Most important: Wear an SPF that offers broad-spectrum protection, meaning it shields against UVA and UVB rays.

Zinc Oxide

Found in: CoTZ Face Natural Skin Tone SPF 40
Physical or chemical: Physical
Great for: Calming sensitive skin. Zinc oxide is a natural anti-inflammatory, quelling redness and irritation while protecting against UVA and UVB rays.

Titanium Dioxide

Found in: Supergoop!® Daily Correct CC Cream
Physical or chemical: Physical
Great for: Natural, non-irritating broad-spectrum protection. Titanium dioxide is typically blended with zinc oxide to achieve a higher SPF.

Oxybenzone

Found in: Miracle Skin Transformer Body SPF 20
Physical or chemical: Chemical
Great for: Non-greasy, weightless protection without the white cast of some physical formulas, though it can be irritating to sensitive skin. Often, oxybenzone is blended with other sunscreens to provide broad-spectrum protection.

Octinoxate

Found in: Supergoop!® Advanced SPF 37 Anti-Aging Eye Cream
Physical or chemical: Chemical
Great for: Pairing with an under eye cream—its feather-light, easy-to-blend texture ensures you don’t tug on the delicate skin there. When mixed with zinc oxide, it delivers broad-spectrum protection.

Octisalate and Octocrylene

Found in: COOLA Liplux SPF 15 - Peppermint + Vanilla
Physical or Chemical: Chemical
Great for: Providing sheer protection that layers well under your go-to products. Like octinoxate, these chemical agents are lightweight and easy to blend, a departure from the goopy sunscreens of yore.

Avobenzone

Found in: COOLA Classic SPF 30 Cucumber Moisturizer for Face
Physical or chemical: Chemical
Great for: Providing UVA and UVB protection that’s ultra sheer. While most sunscreens won’t cause acne (added fragrances and oils are the culprit behind most SPF-induced breakouts), this chemical often appears in formulas for your face because it won’t clog pores or look greasy.

Homosalate

Found in: COOLA SPF 45 Sport – Mango
Physical or chemical: Chemical
Great for: Working in tandem with other sunscreen ingredients to provide higher-than-average SPF protection and achieve the broad-spectrum seal of approval.

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