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What’s the difference between sunscreen, sunblock and suncream?

surfers applying sunscreen

Is sunblock, suncream or sunscreen better? Is there a difference at all? Which term most accurately describes the protection you are getting?

Melanoma (skin cancer) is the most common form of cancer in Aotearoa New Zealand and UV rays are the primary cause of premature ageing. So if you take one thing away from this blog it’s that you should wear sunscreen on your face, neck and other exposed skin daily! The terms sunscreen, sunblock and suncream are often used interchangeably. But do they actually mean the same thing? 

Sunscreen, sunblock and suncream defined

According to the Oxford dictionary…
~Sunscreen is a cream or lotion rubbed on to the skin to protect it from the sun
~Sunblock is a cream or lotion for protecting the skin from the sun and preventing sunburn
~Suncream is a creamy preparation spread over the skin to protect it from sunburn
Soooo based on these definitions, the difference between the three terms is minimal. It isn’t unusual to hear the words sunblock and sunscreen used interchangeably, but according to some people, sunscreen and sunblock are two very different types of sun protection.
According to Healthline sunscreen is a chemical defense, penetrating the skin and absorbing the UV rays before they reach and damage the dermal layers while sunblock is a physical way to defend against UV rays where mineral particles sit on top of the skin and acts as a barrier. However, there are two problems with this:
~Some sunscreens/blocks use a combination of both chemical and physical UV filters.
~According to a scientific paper by Cole et al. (2016), the definition for ‘sunblock’ was subsequently dropped in the 1999 Final Rule for Sunscreen Products primarily to recognize that the term ‘sunblock’ suggested total protection which was not appropriate for any sunscreen.


Hmmmm so where does that leave us. According to the Cancer Council SPF50+ filters out 98% of UVB radiation, while SPF30 blocks out 96.7% of UVB. So regardless of the SPF value, some radiation is still reaching your skin. Based on that, we think it’s more appropriate to use the term sunscreen. What about sun cream? I couldn’t find a whole lot on the history and use of the term sun cream but I think sunscreen more accurately describes the purpose of sunscreen which is to screen a proportion of the sun’s rays before they reach your skin.

Our Sunscreen

Most importantly, non-nano zinc oxide is the only active ingredient we use in our sunscreen. Non-nano zinc oxide is a mineral or physical UV filter that provides great protection for your skin whilst being reef safe. Our sunscreen is broad-spectrum sunscreen meaning it gives extra protection because it filters out both UVA and UVB rays. This is important because:

UVA radiation goes deep into the skin, causing long-term damage such as wrinkles, blotchiness, sagging and skin cancer. We call this UVA for ageing.

UVB radiation gets into the top layer of skin and can cause sunburn, skin damage and skin cancer. We call this UVB for burning.

Our sunscreen meets the AS/NZ 2604:2012 (SPF certification) and ISO 24444:2019 (broad spectrum certification) sunscreen standards.
Cole, C., Shyr, T., & Ou‐Yang, H. (2016). Metal oxide sunscreens protect skin by absorption, not by reflection or scattering. Photodermatology, photoimmunology & photomedicine32(1), 5-10.

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