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We see ads for expensive sunscreens with SPF protection of 50, 70, or even more. But are the chemicals in high-SPF sunscreens safe? Are they worth the money? This article takes a look at real values in sun protection.

If there's any basic rule about applying sunscreen, it's that more is usually better. A little dab of sunscreen is not enough. It's necessary to use enough sunscreen to cover every inch of sun-exposed skin.

But is it also necessary to buy expensive sunscreens with an SPF of 50 or higher? Aren't they made with dangerous chemicals? Let's take a look at the ingredients lists for high-dollar sun protection first.

The highest-SPF sunscreens may contain:

  • Avonbenzone. This chemical protects against the UV-A rays of sunlight, which are potentially more damaging than UV-B. It's not particularly stable in "greasy" formulas. It needs a small amount of acidity in the sunscreen or on the skin to work.
  • Dioxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-8) protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays of sunlight. Rubbing alcohol dissolves it completely, but it's relatively resistant to being washed off the skin with water.
  • Homosalate absorbs both UV-A and UV-B rays and is insoluble in water. It has the added advantage of sticking to the skin without being absorbed by the skin, so there are fewer concerns about body-wide effects.
  • Octocrylene absorbs UV-A rays and acts as a skin moisturizer. By protecting the skin against UV-A rays, it prevents direct damage to the skin's DNA. By moisturizing the skin, it keeps the skin soft, supple, and unwrinkled.
  • Octyl salycilate (sometimes labeled as ethylene salicylate or as octosalate) absorbs UV rays, moisturizes the skin, and reduces inflammation.
  • PABA (or para-aminobenzoic acid). This chemical is banned in the European Union but still used in Australia and the United States. Naturally occurring in the skin and elsewhere in the body as derivative of the B vitamin folic acid, PABA prevents the formation of scar tissue in the skin.
  • Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide the mineral skin protectants that make the skin white. They're natural, they're non-toxic, they're inexpensive, and they offer excellent protection against the sun, but they can make black skin look purple after they are washed off.

Pricier products almost never use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide because they "stain" the skin white, despite the fact these two ingredients offer excellent protection against the sun. You sometimes find products that contain PABA, although these are mostly being taken off the market. But if you are buying a sunscreen with SPF 50 to 100, chances are it will contain the other ingredients listed above. These ingredients aren't toxic and can be used in large quantities, up to 25% of the product in most countries, and up to 100% of products made in Japan. 

Asian skin, incidentally, really does react different to sun than other skin types. People who have deep, golden skin tones tend to get blotchy, purplish reactions to sun injury. People who have fair skin tend to risk skin cancer, but people who have golden skin tones tend to have cosmetic issues from excessive skin exposure that aren't easily corrected with makeup. But is there really a point in getting extra SPF?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Maier T, Korting HC. Sunscreens - which and what for? Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2005 Nov-Dec
  • 18(6):253-62. Epub 2005 Aug 19.
  • Ou-Yang H, Stanfield J, Cole C, Appa Y, Rigel D. High-SPF sunscreens (SPF ≥ 70) may provide ultraviolet protection above minimal recommended levels by adequately compensating for lower sunscreen user application amounts.J Am Acad Dermatol. 2012 Dec. 67(6):1220-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2012.02.029. Epub 2012 Mar 30. PMID: 22463921 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE].
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