Asking “What is the Difference Between Sunscreen and Sunblock” may lead you to confusing answers and information without further explanation. This is due, in part, to the FDA’s delay in implementing their final labeling guidelines for sun protection products.
The FDA new rule, when it goes into effect, will remove the word “sunblock” entirely from the suncare marketing vocabulary.
Although sunblock has been used since sun protection products were invented decades ago, the FDA’s rationale is that no sun protection product can actually “block” all of the sun’s UV rays–so consumers should not be misled by that terminology. Therefore, once the new labeling rules are implemented, all official FDA language will refer to products in the sun protection category, SPF 15 and higher, as sunscreens.
The lingering confusion about whether a product is a sunscreen or a sunblock comes in large part from the way the active ingredients work. These ingredients are either chemical UV absorbers, or what are often referred to as physical UV blockers. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are examples of physical UV blockers. The way they work can be described as blocking, but technically they work by reflecting and scattering UV rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are recommended by many of the advocates for more natural suncare products, thus you may be told to look for a “sunblock” to get natural protection. The fact is the percentage of rays that are prevented from reaching your skin by any of these ingredients depends on the formulation.
Regardless of whether it works by absorbing the rays or by reflecting them, each ingredient is effective in a particular range of ultraviolet light – the UVA spectrum, the UVB spectrum, or some of both. Ideally, the product will use a combination of ingredients to cover the widest range possible producing “broad spectrum” protection. The new FDA labeling is expected to include a star rating system for UVA protection, as well as the current SPF numbering system.
So, when shopping for the right sun protection product for your family, forget about the word “sunblock.”
Look for a UVA Sunscreen that provides broad spectrum coverage, preferably one that is labeled with UVA stars, and with the SPF/UVB sunburn protection you need.