The Difference Between Sunscreen and Sunblock

As you wander the aisles of your pharmacy or supermarket, you may see some products that say "sunscreen" and others that say "sunblock." That leads to questions about the differences between the two types of sun protection. You also may wonder which one you should use.

This article discusses why sunscreen and sunblock are, indeed, two different things. It offers you information so you'll know which one is right for you.

sunscreen vs sunblock

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

How Sunscreen and Sunblock Protect Skin

Sunscreen and sunblock are not the same thing, although many people use the words without thinking about the definition. They are actually two entirely different forms of sun protection.

  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen is the more commonly used type of sun protection. It filters or screens the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. It keeps most rays out but lets some in. It may also be called a chemical sunscreen.
  • Sunblock: Sunblock reflects the sun's rays away from the skin. It blocks the rays from penetrating the skin. It may be called a physical sunscreen.

Fewer products are now called "suntan lotion." If you see any with this label, avoid them. They usually have an SPF of less than 15 or they are oils that don't protect you from the sun at all.

Sunscreen and sunblock are both excellent forms of sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) doesn't advise using one over the other. Just make sure that the one you choose:

  • Is "broad spectrum" and protects against both UVA and UVB rays
  • Has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher
  • Is water-resistant
  • Is correctly applied

A sunscreen or sunblock will only protect your skin when it's used the right way. A study of 101 women in Brazil, where UV exposure is quite high, looked at the actual amounts of SPF 30 to SPF 45 sunscreen that they applied to their faces.

The researchers then calculated how much UV ray protection the women had, based on how the products were applied. Because the sunscreens weren't applied correctly, the women did not have the protection that the products were supposed to provide.

Recap

Sunscreen and sunblock are two different things. They are both safe to use in the sun, so long as they provide adequate protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays and are applied correctly.

Sunscreen and Sunblock Ingredients

Each type of sunscreen or sunblock uses different chemicals. They both protect the skin against the sun's damaging UV rays, but they do it in different ways.

Sunblock Ingredients

Most sunblocks contain titanium oxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient. This is why the formula seems thicker and you can't see through it.

For this reason, some people find it harder to spread a sunblock all over the body. They also may not like the look and feel of a product that can be seen on their skin. For example, you may notice people wearing sunblock at the beach, because they have a streak on their nose or parts of their face.

There are some brands, like Neutrogena, that offer a less-visible sunblock. Baby sunblocks contain only titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. They are appropriate for children aged six months or older.

Sunscreen Ingredients

Sunscreens use a variety of chemicals that work to absorb harmful UV rays before they penetrate your skin. Some have active ingredients including oxybenzone or avobenzone.

Some people are sensitive to or allergic to certain ingredients in sunscreen like PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid). They may choose to use sunblock instead of sunscreen.

You may want to avoid fragrances or oils that are added to sunscreens. Products also may be a blend of both sunscreen and sunblock, so it's important to check the label if you are sensitive to certain chemicals.

Sunscreens may include insect repellant, either a natural type or one that includes artificial chemicals. The AAD doesn't recommend using these because sunscreen should be applied liberally and reapplied often. Insect repellant, though, should be used sparingly and less often. 

Recap

Most sunblocks are thicker, less see-through, and contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Most sunscreens rely on other chemicals, and may also include fragrances, oils, or insect repellant. Be sure to check the labels so the product you buy is the right formula for you.

Summary

Both sunscreen and sunblock provide protection against the sun. They rely on different chemicals to do so and don't look the same when they're applied.

Unless you have an allergy to a specific ingredient, you can choose any effective product. Check the labels to be sure that they're "broad spectrum" products with an SPF of at least 30 and are water-resistant.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Addor FAS, Barcaui CB, Gomes EE, Lupi O, Marçon CR, Miot HA. Sunscreen lotions in the dermatological prescription: review of concepts and controversiesAnais Brasileiros de Dermatologia. Published online January 2022:S0365059621003111. doi: 10.1016/j.abd.2021.05.012

  3. Ruszkiewicz JA, Pinkas A, Ferrer B, Peres TV, Tsatsakis A, Aschner M. Neurotoxic effect of active ingredients in sunscreen products, a contemporary review. Toxicol Rep. 2017;4:245-259. doi:10.1016/j.toxrep.2017.05.006

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