What are the active ingredients in sunscreens

SunscreenPharmaWiki sunscreens are preparations for external use which are used to prevent sunburn and other negative effects of solar radiation on the skin. The active ingredients are organic or inorganic UV filters that absorb, reflect or scatter UV-A and UV-B rays. Sunscreens should be applied in sufficient quantities and as completely as possible before going into the sun. Possible adverse effects include local skin reactions and allergic reactions. Possible effects on the hormonal system and the photoinstability of some organic UV filters are criticized. Correct application is also a challenge.

synonymous: sun cream, sun milk, UV filter, sun protection filter


Sunscreens are preparations for external use that contain UV filters (sun protection filters) as active ingredients. They are available as creams, lotions, milks, gels, fluids, foams, sprays, oils, lip balm and grease pencils. These are usually cosmetics. In some countries, the sunscreens are also approved as medicinal products. Which filters are approved differs from country to country.

Sunscreens were first developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first known commercial products such as Ambre Solaire and Piz Buin were launched in the 1930s, respectively. Launched in the 1940s.

Structure and properties

A distinction is made between organic and inorganic UV filters. Because one substance does not cover the entire spectrum, several filters are combined with one another in order to achieve the necessary protection.

Examples of organic ("chemical") filters (selection):

  • Anisotriazine
  • Avobenzon (butyl methoxydibenzoyl methane)
  • Benzophenone-3, Benzophenone-4, Benzophenone-5
  • 3-benzylidene camphor
  • Bisimidacylate
  • Diethylaminohydroxybenzoyl hexyl benzoate
  • Drometrizoltrisiloxane
  • Ethyl hexyl methoxycinnamate
  • Ethylhexyl triazone
  • Octocrylene

Examples of inorganic ("physical", mineral) filters:

Incidentally, the designation of physical filters is not entirely correct, since the inorganic filters are also chemical compounds.

The organic filters are benzophenones, anthranilates, dibenzoylmethanes, PABA derivatives, salicylates, cinnamic acid esters and camphor derivatives.

The active ingredients are incorporated into different bases, which determine the properties of the product. Antioxidants are often also included as auxiliaries. They are designed to counteract the damage that UV rays cause in the skin.


Sun protection filters absorb, reflect and scatter UV radiation and thus prevent their harmful effects on the skin, cells, connective tissue and genetic material. They are only effective against UV-A (320–400 nm) or UV-B (290–320 nm) or against both types of radiation. The filters can convert the UV radiation into harmless heat, for example.

The sun protection factor (SPF "Factor 30", "Factor 50"), which is stated on the packaging of the products, relates to UV-B radiation. It indicates how much longer you can stay in the sun until reddening develops. A self-protection period of 10 minutes can be extended by a factor of 30 to 300 minutes.

In English, the LSF is called SPF (Sun Protection Factor). However, in order to achieve this factor, a lot of sunscreen must be applied. Research has shown that this is unrealistic in practice. The specified sun protection factor is therefore hardly ever achieved.

application areas

To protect the skin from sunlight and UV radiation. To prevent sunburn, premature aging, age spots and skin diseases associated with radiation:


According to the instructions for use. Sufficient sunscreen should be used and the agent should be applied evenly and as completely as possible. The funds should be used before sunbathing.

Sunscreens can discolour textiles. You should therefore let them move in well.

Sunscreens are only waterproof to a limited extent. A lot of protection is lost not only when sweating and bathing, but also when drying the skin with a cloth. Therefore, the means should usually be used several times in order to maintain the effect. However, this cannot extend the total duration of protection.

The shelf life of the products is limited. After opening, they can usually be used for about a year.

  • Do not apply to hypersensitivity.
  • Avoid eye contact.
  • Use age-appropriate products.
  • Sunscreens do not offer absolute protection from UV radiation.
unwanted effects

Sunscreens can cause local skin reactions, skin irritation and allergic reactions.

The inorganic filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can turn the skin white and dry it out a little. The finer the particles in the product, the less pronounced this effect is. With modern products the so-called "whitening effect" is practically absent.

The organic sun protection filters are not without controversy because laboratory and animal experiments have shown effects on the hormone system (endocrine disruptors). However, the authorities rate them as safe. Some substances can also be photo-unstable, i.e. they can decompose under UV radiation (e.g. avobenzone, dibenzoylmethane). The inorganic filters are photostable.

  • Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) Information, tips and recommendations on sunscreens / UV filter substances in sunscreens
  • Instructions for use (CH)
  • Krause M. et al. Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV filters. Int J Androl, 2012, 35 (3), 424-36 Pubmed
  • Wang J. et al. Recent Advances on Endocrine Disrupting Effects of UV Filters. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 2016, 13 (8) E782 Pubmed
  • Schroeder P., Krutmann J. What is needed for a sunscreen to provide complete protection. Skin Therapy Lett, 2010, 15 (4), 4-5 Pubmed
  • Serpone N. et al. Inorganic and organic UV filters: Their role and efficacy in sunscreens and suncare products. Inorganica Chimica Acta, 2007, 360, 794-802
  • Urbach F. The historical aspects of sunscreens. J Photochem Photobiol B, 2001, 64 (2-3), 99-104 Pubmed

Conflicts of Interest: None / Independent. The author (AV) has no relationships with the manufacturers and is not involved in the sale of the products mentioned.

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This article was last changed on March 8th, 2021.
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