What is the most significant difference between sunscreen vs sunblock?

If you have sensitive skin or you are trying to prevent premature aging, your daily beauty regimen probably includes the application of some type of sun protection, but if you want to increase the type of protection your skin gets in order to protect them from UV rays and the free radicals they contain, you may be wondering about whether to use sunscreen vs sunblock. Many people believe that these two products are synonymous with each other and that it doesn’t matter which you use.

However, there are several differences in sunscreen vs sunblock, and to achieve the type of protection you need for your skin, you should make an effort to understand the difference. This is especially important if you have problem skin that is prone to acne, discoloration, or if you have sensitive skin. Knowing the difference between sunblock vs. sunscreen can help you make the best possible decision when it comes to buying sun protection.

Know What’s “Broad Spectrum”

There are two basic types of sun rays: UVA and UVB. Once upon a time, sunscreen contained only UVB protection (and some still does). But every person needs to be protected from both types of harmful rays. So when you’re looking at sunscreens make sure the label says “broad spectrum” protection, meaning it has ingredients to combat both UVA and UVB. Another option is to use sunblock instead of sunscreen, there is a difference between the two.

Know Your SPF

Here’s the story with SPF: it’s a number that theorizes how long you can stay in the sun when the product in question is applied. Versus going out with bare skin. But it’s tricky, and imperfect. Because age, sun strength, time of day and your genes all play a part in whether or not that number rings true for you. To make matters as simple as possible, just go with at least an SPF 30. According to studies, it blocks about 97% of the harsh rays that cause serious damage. It’s said that SPF 45 blocks about 98%. What about SPF 75? According to the FDA, that’s little more than marketing foolery, as no level of SPF protects 100% and the higher SPF numbers’ increase in protection is negligible. Unfortunately, many people buy the highest SPF possible for themselves or their kids, thinking it means they can stay out all day long and be invincible to sun damage. They end up not re-applying and staying out longer than they would with a lower SPF that offers virtually the same protection.

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What is Sunblock?

The primary feature that makes sunblock different than sunscreen is that it blocks the sun’s UV rays from reaching the skin by creating a layer of protection on the surface. Sunblock is usually formulated to be quite thick, which creates an opaque film on the skin so that the sun’s UV rays cannot penetrate it, thus preventing sunburn that can permanently damage the skin and even cause skin cancer. The other major difference between sunblock vs. sunscreen is in its ingredients, as sunblock uses titanium or zinc oxide, which gives the product its thicker, more visible appearance.

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If you are considering the use of sunscreen vs sunblock, then you should consider your skin type before making your purchase. If you have acne-prone skin, be sure that you use a product that is labeled as non-comedonal, as the thickness of sunblock can block pores, which is a major cause of acne. One advantage of using sunblock is that the titanium and zinc oxides that most brands contain are non-irritating ingredients that will not inflame sensitive skin. To further prevent your skin from becoming irritated by sunblock products, choose one that is dye, fragrance, and paraben-free.

What is Sunscreen?

When it comes to sunscreen vs sunblock, many people think that they work exactly the same way, but in truth, sunscreen does not block the sun’s UV rays. Instead, the ingredients contained in sunscreen are formulated to absorb the majority of UV rays before they can reach the skin. While many sunscreens contain a high SPF, which is the level of sun protection a product orders, they cannot absorb all of the sun’s rays. This means that if you’re looking for a more complete sun care regimen, you may want to use sunblock vs. sunscreen products in a complementary manner.

The primary active SPF ingredients in many sunscreens include benzophenone and avobenzone, which work to absorb the sun’s rays; however, these ingredients have been known to irritate the skin, so it’s important that you read the label’s ingredients when choosing a sunscreen. Some companies offer sunscreen for sensitive skin that often contain the same kind of zinc oxide that sunblock does, but this will make the formula a little thicker and may take longer to apply.


Sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb UV radiation and reduce the amount that reaches the skin, according to the American Melanoma Foundation (AMF). Sunblocks physically prevent UV radiation from reaching the skin. Sunscreens tend to be transparent and are invisible when applied, whereas sunblocks are thicker, remain visible when applied and are more difficult to wash off than sunscreens.


Sun protection products should protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. Go Sun Smart describes UVA as affecting the outermost skin layers, causing aging and wrinkles. UVB radiation damages deeper skin layers, potentially causing skin cancer. The amount of protection offered by sunscreens is measured in sun protection factor (SPF) units. The SPF level of a particular product indicates how long a person can remain in the sun without becoming burned, according to Lifespan.

For example, sunscreen vs sunblock competition, if you use a product with an SPF of 20, you may stay in the sun 20 times longer than if you did not use any sunscreen. The higher the SPF level, the greater the protection from UV radiation. Sunblocks provide more protection against UV radiation than sunscreens, but sunblocks are not measured with SPF units, states the AMF. Sunblocks protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens protect against UVB, but not all offer protection against UVA radiation.

Many people use the words sunscreen and sunblock interchangeably, but they are two entirely different forms of sun protection.

  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen is the more commonly used type of sun protectant. 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, on the other hand, reflects the sun’s rays from the skin, blocking the rays from penetrating the skin. It may be called a physical sunscreen.

Sunscreen vs sunblock are both excellent forms of sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) doesn’t advise using one over the other, so long as the one that you choose protects against both UVA and UVB rays (if it does, it will say “broad-spectrum” on the label), has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and is water-resistant. Just make sure that you apply it correctly.

Another important note: Fewer products these days are called “suntan lotion,” but 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.

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Active Ingredients

Each type of sunscreen or sunblock uses different chemicals to protect the skin against the sun’s damaging UV rays.

  • Sunblocks: Most sunblocks utilize titanium oxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient, which results in a thicker, more opaque consistency. Some consider this to be a disadvantage because the consistency makes it difficult to spread all over the body. Secondly, many sunblocks are opaque and can be seen on the skin after application – and this may be aesthetically unappealing to you. You may notice people wearing sunblock, especially at the beach, because they will often have a streak of sunblock on their noses and on other parts of their faces. 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.
  • Sunscreens: 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) and choose to use sunblock instead of sunscreen. Checking the label is important if you want to avoid fragrances or oils that are often added to sunscreens. Also, some sunscreens are formulated to 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, while insect repellant should be used sparingly and less often.

Many brands today are a blend of sunscreen and sunblock, so it’s important to check the label if you have a sensitivity to certain chemicals.

Proper Use

Effective protection from UV rays depends on proper use of sunscreens and sunblocks. For maximum protection, sunscreens must be applied 30 minutes before going out in the sun to allow the skin to absorb the protective chemicals, according to Go Sun Smart. Sunscreen must be reapplied after swimming or sweating, even if the product is waterproof. Sunblock is effective as soon as it is applied and, because it remains on the skin surface, it can be applied immediately before sun exposure.


AMF recommends using sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15–higher for people with light skin. People who are especially sensitive to the sun should use sunblocks. Cream or lotions provide an amount of protection, but oils have much lower SPF levels–usually two or less–and provide inadequate UV protection. Use sun protection all year long, whether the weather is sunny or cloudy.

The Bottom Line on Sunscreens and Sunblocks

Both sunscreen and sunblock provide protection against the sun. If you are sensitive to or allergic to certain ingredients, then that may guide your decision. If you aren’t sensitive to or allergic to certain ingredients, then it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

Sunscreen vs sunblock: Which Should You Choose?

 When making your final choice between sunblock vs. sunscreen, the most important factor to consider is the sensitivity level of your skin and whether you have any existing skin problems that sunblock or sunscreen may make worse. If you are under the care of a dermatologist, he or she can help you make an informed decision about whether sunblock

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a drawing with tanner on a shoulder

To Reapply or Not to Reapply?

Even the most perfect SPF (that hasn’t been invented yet) or the best sunblock does not protect against the sun for more than an hour or two. And that includes waterproof and water-resistant varieties. Always re-apply about every hour or so when you’re outdoors. What about your moisturizer that has SPF 15? Unfortunately, that too will wear off after a couple of hours. Still, it’s better than nothing on a day to day basis. Experts say that we should apply the same amount of lotion that would fit in a shot glass to protect our entire bodies, and that most people don’t use enough. So don’t be afraid to slather it on before you head out in your swimsuit.

It Is an Excuse to Stay in the Sun Forever

Want to know what the doc says is the best way to protect against sun exposure? Limit exposure with sunglasses, large brimmed hats and clothing. Stay indoors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Everyone needs a regular dose of Vitamin D, the main source of which we get from the sun. But overall, you should really rethink your sun worshipping ways if you have a habit of laying out in the sun or under a tanning lamp. Don’t be fooled by the term “healthy glow.” A tan is actually your skin’s reaction to being damaged; it’s literally unhealthy. Embrace your skin’s natural, beautiful tone and know that no matter what it is, variety is the spice of life! Every skin color is beautiful the way it was meant to be.

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What is the most significant difference between sunscreen vs sunblock?