An in-depth, global look into the world of UV-blocking ingredients

You might already know the basics: Sunscreen is a preventive measure to protect skin against the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

The two main types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB, damage the skin, cause premature aging, and increase your risk of skin cancer. And these rays come in contact with your skin year-round, even when it’s cloudy or you’re indoors (some UV rays can penetrate through glass).

But choosing a sunscreen isn’t as easy as grabbing any bottle from the shelf. Not all sun-protecting ingredients have the same benefits, risks, or instructions.

In fact, some ingredients might help prevent burn but not aging, while others are universally considered safe for people, but not the environment.

So how’s your skin to know what works? We’ve got your back on all the approved, banned, and status in-flux ingredients around the world. FYI: Most formulations are made up of at least two UV-filter ingredients.

Found in chemical sunscreens

One of the more popular European ingredients, Tinosorb S can protect against UVB and UVA rays, long and short, making it one of the most ideal ingredients for sun damage prevention. Tinosorb also helps stabilize other sunscreen filters and is allowed in concentrations of up to 10 percent.

However, the FDA hasn’t approved this ingredient for several reasons, citing, according to Newsweek, a “lack of information” and only being asked for “a decision, not an approval.”

The ingredient is often added to sunscreen to boost its efficiency and has yet to be connected to any high risk factors.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: Australia, Japan, Europe
  • Banned in: United States
  • Best for: Antioxidant benefits and sun damage prevention
  • Coral safe? Unknown

Found in chemical sunscreens

Mexoryl SX is a UV filter used in sunscreens and lotions across the globe. It has abilities to block UVA1 rays, which are the longwave rays that spur skin aging.

A 2008 review showed it’s an effective UV absorber and ideal for preventing sun damage.

While this ingredient has been in European circulation since 1993, the FDA didn’t approve this ingredient for L’Oréal until 2006. Medically, it’s been approved for adults and children over 6 months of age.

Look for it with: Avobenzone. When combined with avobenzone, UVA protection of both ingredients are enhanced and stabilized.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: United States, Australia, Europe, Japan
  • Banned in: None
  • Best for: Sun damage prevention
  • Coral safe? Yes

Found in physical sunscreens

Oxybenzone, often found in broad-spectrum sunscreens, helps filter both UVB and UVA rays (specifically short UVA). It’s also one of the most popular ingredients, found in the majority of sunscreens in the U.S. market and can make up to 6 percent of the bottle.

However, Hawaii has banned this ingredient after a study, created by the Haereticus Environmental lab, found that the ingredient contributed to bleaching and poisoning coral reefs. For environmental reasons, you’ll want to avoid this ingredient and look for “green” sunscreens.

Most recently, a study found that our skin absorbs sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone. This caused a spike of interest in “safe” sunscreens, despite the study reporting no harm found and concluding that “these results do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen.”

Other studies also confirm that oxybenzone doesn’t significantly demonstrate endocrine disruption.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: United States (except Hawaii), Australia, Europe
  • Restricted in: Japan
  • Best for: Sun damage and burn prevention
  • Coral safe? No, may also potentially affect fish
  • Caution: Sensitive skin types will want to skip formulas with this ingredient

Found in chemical sunscreens

Octinoxate is a common and potent UVB absorber, meaning it’s effective for sun damage prevention. Combined with avobenzone, they can both provide great broad-spectrum protection against burns and aging.

This ingredient is allowed in formulations (up to 7.5 percent), but is banned in Hawaii due to the environmental risks on coral reefs.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: Certain U.S. states, Europe, Japan, Australia
  • Banned in: Hawaii, Key West (Florida), Palau
  • Best for: Sunburn prevention
  • Coral safe? No, may also potentially affect fish

Found in chemical sunscreens

Avobenzone is commonly used to block the full range of UVA rays and is reported as ‘unstable’ in physical sunscreens.

On its own, the ingredient destabilizes when exposed to light. To combat this, it’s often paired with other ingredients (such as mexoryl) to stabilize avobenzone.

In many countries, avobenzone is used in combination with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide specifically, but in the United States, the combination isn’t permitted.

While it’s found in broad-spectrum sunscreens, it’s often combined with other chemicals because avobenzone by itself will lose 50 to 90 percent of its filtering abilities within an hour of light exposure.

In the U.S., the FDA deems this ingredient safe but restricts the concentration amount to 3 percent in sunscreen formulations.

Fast facts

Found in physical sunscreens

There are two sunscreen ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective, or GRASE, by the FDA, and both are physical sunscreen ingredients. (Note: the GRASE label also means that the FDA won’t be monitoring products with these ingredients.)

The first one, titanium dioxide, serves as a broad-spectrum UV filter (although it doesn’t block long UVA1 rays).

The FDA approves titanium dioxide for use in children older than 6 months, and research shows it’s generally safer than other sunscreens via skin exposure.

However, researchers also write that power and spray forms should be avoided as it may be hazardous. A 2011 review notes that titanium oxide nanoparticles through oral exposure are classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” meaning only animal studies have been conducted.

Keep in mind this ingredient isn’t limited to sunscreen. It can also be found in SPF makeup, pressed powders, lotions, and whitening products.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: United States, Australia, Europe, Japan
  • Banned in: None
  • Best for: Sun damage prevention
  • Coral safe? Detectable levels but no harm found
  • Caution: Formulas may leave white cast on darker skin, and ingredient may be carcinogenic in powder form

Found in physical sunscreens

Zinc oxide is the second GRASE sunscreen ingredient, allowed in concentrations up to 25 percent.

Studies show it’s safe, with no evidence of skin penetration, even after repeated use. In Europe, the ingredient is labeled with a warning because of its toxicity to aquatic life. The ingredient doesn’t cause harm unless it’s swallowed or inhaled.

Compared to avobenzone and titanium oxide, it’s cited as a photostable, effective, and safe for sensitive skin. On the other hand, research also says it’s not as effective as chemical sunscreens, and isn’t as effective in protecting against sunburn as it is for sun damage.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: United States, Australia, Europe, Japan
  • Banned in: None
  • Best for: Sun damage prevention
  • Coral safe? No
  • Caution: Certain formulations may leave a white cast for olive and dark skin tones

Found in both chemical (PABA) and physical (trolamine) sunscreens

Also known as para-aminobenzoic acid, this is a strong UVB absorber. The popularity of this ingredient has decreased due to the fact that it increases allergic dermatitis and increases photosensitivity.

Studies on animals have also shown certain levels of toxicity, leading the European Commission and the FDA to restrict formula concentrations to 5 percent. However, Canada has banned the use of PABA in cosmetics altogether.

Trolamine salicylate, also known as Tea-Salicylate, was deemed GRASE in 2019, but the research shows it’s a weak UV absorber. Because of this, the ingredient is limited in its percentage alongside other GRASE ingredients.

Fast facts

  • Approved in: United States (up to 12-15%), Australia (trolamine salicylate only), Japan
  • Banned in: Australia (PABA), Europe (PABA), Canada (both)
  • Best for: Sunburn protection
  • Coral safe? Unknown

The United States’ classification of sunscreen as a drug is one of the biggest reasons for its slow approval rate. The drug classification comes because the product is marketed as a preventive measure for sunburn as well as skin cancer.

In Australia, sunscreen is classified as therapeutic or cosmetic. Therapeutic refers to sunscreens where the primary use is sun protection and has an SPF of 4 or higher. Cosmetic refers to any product that includes SPF but isn’t meant to be your sole protection. Europe and Japan classify sunscreen as cosmetic.

But since the FDA took so long to approve new ingredients (none have gone through since 1999), Congress introduced the Sunscreen Innovation Act in 2014. The goal is to get the FDA to review their approval backlog of pending sunscreen ingredients, including new ones that are submitted after the act was signed, by November 2019.

As far as sunscreen options, many consumers have turned to buying sunscreen online from other countries. This may not always be because of the ingredients themselves. As mentioned earlier, overseas sunscreens are formulated as cosmetics, making them, reportedly, more pleasant to apply, less likely to leave a white cast, and less greasy.

And while it’s not illegal to buy sunscreen abroad, purchasing them through unofficial vendors on Amazon is tricky. The products might be expired or fake.

On top of that, these overseas products might become harder to access after the proposal is in effect.

In the meantime, sunscreen users like us have to educate ourselves on sunscreen ingredients and preventive measures

There are also golden rules for applying sunscreen. Reapplication every two hours is important — especially if you’re outdoors as SPF numbers aren’t indications of how long you should stay in the sun.

Physical sunscreens are effective immediately after application while chemical sunscreens take 15 to 20 minutes to start working.

Avoid misinformation, too. Reports and research show that DIY sunscreens on Pinterest are extremely popular, despite the fact that DIY sunscreens don’t work and can, in fact, increase skin damage.

After all, while sunscreens from other countries might be more elegant, it’s not a reason to hold off “for the best option” until the FDA approves them. The best sunscreen to use is the one you’re already using.

Taylor Ramble is a skin enthusiast, freelance writer, and film student. For the past five years she’s worked as a freelance writer and blogger focusing on topics from wellness to pop culture. She enjoys dancing, learning about food and culture, as well as empowerment. Right now she works at The University of Georgia’s Virtual Reality Lab focusing on the impact of advancing technologies on behavior and wellness.