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GyanHow Does Sunscreen Work? Dermatologists Explain How It Protects Skin

How Does Sunscreen Work? Dermatologists Explain How It Protects Skin

In order to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, you must wear sunscreen daily. The FDA regulates how much SPF a product needs and establishes standards for what is considered safe. How does it work? Dermatologists explain in this blog post!

Sunscreen is a cosmetic product that protects skin from sun’s ultraviolet radiation. It consists of chemicals such as avobenzone, octocrylene and oxybenzone mixed with other ingredients like water and alcohol to form an opaque cream-like substance. The active sunscreen ingredient does not block the UV rays completely but rather absorbs them in the upper layers of your skin where they are then metabolized into heat energy

“How does sunscreen work chemically” is a question that has been asked by many people. Dermatologists explain how it protects skin.

With so much information regarding sunscreen floating around, it’s difficult to know where to begin when it comes to utilizing and selecting the finest SPF formulas. So the specialists at the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab and leading doctors have done the legwork for you and answered all of your burning sunscreen questions.

First and foremost, what exactly is sunscreen and how does it work?

Sunscreens are skincare products that include active substances that protect skin cells against ultraviolet radiation from the sun, including UVB (burning rays) and UVA (aging rays), in order to prevent skin damage that may lead to skin cancer and aging indications. Sunscreens protect skin from UV damage by integrating chemical or physical active components (or a mix of both).

According to GH Beauty Lab Director Birnur Aral, Ph.D., sunscreen products come in a variety of compositions, including creams, lotions, sprays, gels, oils, sticks, mousses or foams, and powders. “The most frequent types of sunscreens are lotions and creams, which are quite excellent at delivering sunscreen actives to the skin,” she continues. “Of all the forms of sunscreen, they provide by far the best protection since they travel quickly over the skin and create a protective layer.”

What exactly does “SPF” stand for?

“SPF” stands for Sun Protection Factor and is followed by a number (i.e. 15, 30, 50, etc.) that represents how long it would take the sun’s UVB rays to burn skin if the product was applied as indicated on the label vs how long it would take skin to burn if no SPF was applied. An SPF of 50, for example, means that it will take 50 times longer for skin to burn when exposed to the sun while wearing the product than while not wearing it. The SPF rating only relates to UVB ray protection; check for the word “wide spectrum” on the box to confirm that the product also protects against UVA rays.

What are the differences between chemical and physical sunscreens?

  • According to the GH Beauty Lab, chemical sunscreens are manufactured using chemical active ingredients like avobenzone and homosalate, which function by absorbing UV radiation that comes into contact with skin.
  • Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) are made up of mineral active sunscreen components like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which deflect UV rays away from the skin. Chemical and physical sunscreen active components are included in certain SPF compositions.

What is the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50+, and which is the optimal amount of SPF?

Even if the difference between the numbers itself seems little, the number on a sunscreen does make a difference, ranging from SPF 30 and lower to SPF 50 and above. “SPF 30 screens 96.7 percent of UV radiation, enabling 3.3 percent to penetrate skin,” says Steven Q. Wang, M.D., Director of Dermatologic Surgery and Dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. “As a result, SPF 30 allows twice than much UV to penetrate the skin as SPF 60.”

People seldom apply the quantity of sunscreen required to obtain the complete protection listed on the product’s box, thus the GH Beauty Lab suggests erring on the side of caution when selecting SPF (one small shot glass full or two tablespoons of SPF for body and a nickel-sized dollop of SPF for face). According to Aral, consumers apply roughly one-third the quantity of sunscreen required to attain the SPF specified on the label. “To compensate, we suggest wearing at least a broad-spectrum SPF 50.” Remember to reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating, since high SPF levels might offer you a false feeling of security.

Are you ready to learn more about sunscreens? From the newest news on sunscreen safety to the best-tested SPFs you can purchase for face and body, the GH Beauty Lab’s professional guide to the ins and outs of sunscreen can be found below.


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April Franzino is the Director of Beauty. April Franzino is the Beauty Director for Hearst Women’s Lifestyle Beauty Group’s Good Housekeeping.

The “what does spf mean” is a question that dermatologists are asked often. Sunscreen protects skin by blocking the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. The SPF number on sunscreen bottles tells you how well the product blocks those rays, with higher numbers meaning more protection.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does sunscreen work to protect your skin?

A: Sunscreen is a chemical product which does two things. First, it protects the skin by absorbing ultraviolet light and second, it helps to chemically neutralize free radicals in the body that are created when UV radiation strikes your skin.

What do dermatologists say about sunscreen?

A: Dermatologists recommend a sunscreen with at least 15 SPF, but some dermatologists advise users to also use an antioxidant serum.

Why do dermatologists recommend sunscreen?

A: Sunscreen is used to protect the skin from UV exposure. Too much exposure can lead to sunburns, premature aging of the skin and even cancer.

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