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7th June 2017

What is the Difference Between Sunscreen and Sunblock?

We all know that wearing sunscreen is important for protecting our skin from the harmful effects of the sun, but when it comes to choosing the right product things can get a bit confusing.

With so many products on the market, it can be hard to know what the difference is and which will be best for your skin.

Many sun care products boast different features, benefits and even names. You may have noticed some products on the market claim to be sunblock, rather than sunscreen – raising the question ‘what is the difference?’ Here, we answer this common query, clearing up any confusion you may have when searching for the perfect sunscreen for you and your family.

What’s the difference?

You may hear people using the words sunscreen and sunblock interchangeably, but they typically refer to two different forms of sun protection. Sunscreen is the most commonly used type and may also be called a chemical sunscreen, as it uses chemical absorbers to filter the sun’s UV rays. Sun care products referred to as sunblock work differently, by physically reflecting the sun’s rays away from the skin.

Many people think that products referred to as sunblock will completely block out the sun’s rays, but like sunscreen they only offer the sun protection factor stated on the bottle. This is where the sunblock controversy stems from, the misleading nature of the name of the product (more on this later).

Sunscreens are usually transparent, as they penetrate the skin and absorb UV rays, whereas sunblock sits on top of the skin to shield it from UV rays, meaning that it is often visible. If you’ve seen people on the beach or ski slopes with a line of white cream on their nose, that’s probably come from a bottle labelled sunblock.

Sunblock controversy

Products sporting the name sunblock are much less common today than they were just 10 years ago. This is because numerous health organisations, such as the FDA in the USA, have moved to ban the use of the word sunblock on sun care products, labelling it misleading.

Sunblock products never completely block the effects of the sun, rendering the product name misleading, and potentially dangerous. No sunblock products completely block the effects of the sun, but rather help protect the skin.

Products labelled as sunblock are still available in the UK, so it is still useful for you and your family to understand the difference and the limitations.

How do they work?

Sunscreen and sunblock work a little differently, with sunscreen screening out UV rays and sunblock providing a certain degree of protection against rays before they reach your skin. Sunscreen works by penetrating the skin and using chemicals to absorb UV rays before they are able to reach and damage the dermal layer. Some contain active ingredients such as oxybenzone or avobenzone[1].

Sunblock usually uses active ingredients like titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which gives it the thick, opaque consistency it often has. People who are allergic to the chemicals used in sunscreens often use sunblock instead, as they tend to be kinder on the skin. However, many sun protection products actually combine the two, so if you do have a sensitivity it’s important to check the label. With both products, you should choose one that has a sun protection factor of 30 and protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Proper use

Many people do not apply sun protection properly, which can lower the level of protection you are getting. If you are using a product labelled as sunblock it will provide you with immediate protection and can be applied just before sun exposure. Sunscreens, however, must be applied 30 minutes before going out in the sun, as the skin needs time to fully absorb the product. You should reapply your sun protection after swimming, sweating, or towelling dry, even if the product is water resistant.

For your sun protection to be properly effective you must use enough to fully coat any skin that will not be protected by clothing. Studies show that people only use 20-50% of the required amount of sunscreen, significantly lowering the amount of protection they receive[2]. You should apply around one teaspoon worth of sun protection to each exposed area of the body, such as the limbs and face. This is to ensure that you get the level of sun protection advertised on the packaging.

Which is best?

Sunscreen and reputable sunblock products labelled as sunblock both provide you with effective protection against the sun. Choosing between the two is often a matter of personal preference, based on how the products feel and whether you have any sensitivities to the ingredients. Whichever you choose, ensure that it has an SPF 30 or above, preferably the highest available SPF 50/50+, and provides broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection.

Some sun care products only protect against one type of UV ray, so be sure to look for one that has broad-spectrum cover. If you have photosensitivity due to a genetic condition or cancer you may find that a product labelled as sunblock is better for your sensitive skin, although some sunscreens have been specifically designed with these issues in mind.

And it is always worth remembering that sunblock products never completely block the effects of the sun, so always make sure you use a product with a high SPF and broad-spectrum UVA and UVB, reapplying regularly.

If you want a sunscreen that you can rely on to protect you from the potentially harmful effects of the sun, why not choose one of SunSense’s expertly formulated products? From our SunSense Ultra formula which can even be used by people who have photosensitivity, to our SunSense Sensitive range which has all the benefits of sunscreen without the harsh chemicals, SunSense have a product that’s perfect for you. Browse the full range of products online.

[1] American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs [internet] [cited 2017 04 28] Available from:

[2] Sunscreen and Sun Safety Fact Sheet. © British Association of Dermatologists 2009.


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