Sunblock vs Sunscreen: Differences and How to Choose

Despite Similar Names, They Work Differently

Sunblock and sunscreen are two different types of sun protection that work in different ways. Sunscreen filters the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, while sunblock reflects the sun's rays away from the skin. Both forms are effective at protecting the skin from sunburn and preventing wrinkles. 

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

Sunscreen vs. Sunblock

Sunscreen is the more commonly used type of sun protection. It filters or screens the sun's UV rays. It keeps most rays out but lets some in. It may also be called a chemical sunscreen.

Sunblock blocks the sun's rays from penetrating the skin by reflecting them away. It may be called a physical sunscreen.

Things to Keep in Mind

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans manufacturers from claiming sunscreens are "waterproof," "sweatproof," or "sunblock," as these claims overstate their effectiveness.

How to Choose Sun Protection

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 you choose one that offers:

  • Broad-spectrum coverage (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Water resistance

Broad spectrum sunblocks and sunscreens will prevent tanning and premature aging as well as sunburn.

As always, make sure the sun protection is correctly applied. 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 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 the products were supposed to provide.

Ingredients

Each type of sunscreen or sunblock uses different ingredients. 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 dioxide 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 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 may also be a blend of 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.

A Word From Verywell

When putting on the sun protection, don't forget the places we don't often think about: the tops of the ears, the scalp, the tops of your hands. See your dermatologist regularly for check-ups and always wear sunscreen, even if it seems like an overcast day.

If you're not sure which sunscreen or sunblock to use, ask your health care provider for tips. They might have some suggestions or recommendations for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does sunscreen give more protection than sunblock?

    They are both protective; the main difference is the way they protect against the UV rays. Choose the one you will use regularly and often. Sunblock usually isn't rubbed in, so if you want a more "normal" looking sun protection, you may want to choose sunscreen, which disappears completely when rubbed into the skin.

  • Is it okay to use sunblock every day?

    Yes. In fact, you should use it (or sunscreen) every day. This will help to protect your skin from harmful rays.

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.
  1. Food and Drug Administration. Labeling and effectiveness testing; sunscreen drug products for over-the-counter human use.

  2. Addor FAS, Barcaui CB, Gomes EE, Lupi O, Marçon CR, Miot HA. Sunscreen lotions in the dermatological prescription: review of concepts and controversies. An Bras Dermatol. 2022;97(2):204-222. 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

Additional Reading
Originally written by Lisa Fayed