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How Does Sunscreen Work?

4 mins

Akhila Jerripothula

How does sunscreen work? What is chemical vs physical SPF? We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about how to protect your skin's health!

Contrary to popular belief, sunscreen is a daily staple, even as colder weather settles in. In fact, sunscreen is essential to protect your skin from the incoming sun’s rays no matter the season, weather, temperature, cloud coverage, etc. But how does sunscreen work? Understanding how sunscreen works can give you a better sense of why you should be using it every day, and reapplying it every 2 hours. We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about how to protect your skin and your long-term health!

Chemical vs Physical Sunscreen. Which sunscreen is best?

You know that sunscreen protects our skin from the sun, but do you know how it actually works? There are two different types of sunscreen on the market to choose from. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s UV rays like a sponge and neutralize them by releasing a small amount of heat. They usually contain active ingredients such as avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, and ecamsule.

If you have sensitive skin that is easily irritated, try physical instead of chemical sunscreens. They reflect (instead of absorbing) the sun’s UV rays away from the skin, with active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Physical sunscreens are usually less irritating but are thicker, harder to rub in, and can leave a white cast, especially on melanated skin. 

Types of Sunscreen

There are multiple forms of sunscreen, including sprays, lotion, and powders. A favorite is fine mist sprays, since it’s quick, easy, and leaves very little residue on the skin compared to sunscreen lotion, which is thicker and can take a long time to rub in. For those with beautifully melanated skin, physical sunscreen lotions can leave a ghostly, white film on the skin that shows up especially with flash photography. Even though sprays are more convenient, there are concerns about the inhalation of fumes from the spray. So while both sprays and lotion are effective in theory, lotion might be the way to go if you want measurable coverage. For on the go application, we love using powdered SPF to touch up your sun protection, even on top of makeup!

The key to protecting your skin is using a broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen, meaning it provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Once you’ve figured out which form of sunscreen works for you, it’s time to choose the amount of SPF! 

What does the SPF number really mean?

The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) number tells you how long the sun's UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed, versus the amount of time without any sunscreen. Even lower SPF numbers can be very effective at blocking the vast amount of UV rays. In fact, as long as your sunscreen has an SPF of 30 or higher, you will be protected from at least 97% of the sun’s rays! However, if you want the most protection, SPF 50 blocks about 98% of the sun’s rays while SPF 100 blocks about 99%. Unfortunately, no amount of SPF can protect you from 100% of the sun’s rays, so using umbrellas or sun hats can provide additional protection from sunburns and skin cancer. 

How to Use Sunscreen Properly. Is it Safe to Use Sunscreen Everyday?

Many people apply sunscreen correctly only to find that they got burnt anyway. So what gives? Unfortunately, just putting on a bit of sunscreen one time won’t cut it. If you’re spending time in the water or are in the sun for more than two hours, you need to reapply! 

If you’re tired of getting sunburnt, here are some tips on how to apply sunscreen like a pro:

  • If you wait until you’re outside to apply sunscreen -- you’re already doing it wrong! Most sunscreens have to be absorbed into the skin before they actually become effective. That’s why it’s important to apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outdoors. To help the product fully absorb into your skin, rub the sunscreen into your skin until you can’t see it anymore. This might take a minute or two, but it will make sure your skin has properly absorbed the SPF, and you won’t see unsightly white streaks! 
  • Make sure you use the right amount of sunscreen. While it’s tempting to just use a little bit so it’s easier to rub in, you want to use more so that you can achieve equal coverage across your entire body. As a guide, you should be using about two tablespoons of sunscreen for your body and about a nickel-sized amount for your face. 
  • Speaking of your face, make sure to apply sunscreen to every part of the body because skin cancer can occur anywhere! This is especially true when it comes to delicate areas on your face like around your eyes. It’s easy to forget about areas like your ears, scalp, back of the neck, and the tops of your hands and feet. When it comes to sunscreen, it’s better to be thorough with your application so you don’t end up with burnt feet or ears! 
  • Another area that you shouldn’t neglect is the lips! A lot of people don’t protect their lips from the sun because most sunscreens can’t be applied directly to the lips. Instead, you should apply a lip balm with SPF 15 or higher to protect your lips from sun damage.
  • One of the biggest mistakes that people make when using sunscreen is that they don’t reapply. They think that they can put it on once and spend the entire day outside without a second thought. However, that’s definitely not the case. In fact, you should apply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors to prevent sun damage. If you are sweating profusely or get wet, you should reapply immediately afterward even if the product is considered “water-resistant.”
  • Finally, you should apply sunscreen every day whether or not you go outdoors. This is because UV rays can still come through windows when you’re in your home, at work, in the car, etc. You should also always apply sunscreen if you’re going outside during cloudy or cool weather. No matter the cloud coverage or temperature, UV rays are still coming through and can affect your skin. 


Sunscreen is extremely important, but since no sunscreen can protect you from 100% of the sun’s rays, you need to protect your skin in other ways by wearing a hat, coverup, and sunglasses while outdoors. 

Even though you’re a sunscreen expert now, make sure to treat any incidences of sunburn with cold compresses, gentle moisturizers, and aloe vera products from companies like WOW Skin Science that can help soothe and heal your sunburn! 


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Author: Akhila Jerripothula

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