Let’s face it: The sunscreen category is not the easiest to grasp—it’s a bit of a brainteaser. From confusing labels to countless abbreviations, buying a sunscreen that’s right for you—and using it properly—can be a challenge. This is true for even the most beauty literate. And since we know that sunscreen is a critically important skincare step in reducing the risk of premature aging and, most importantly, skin cancer, many people are overwhelmed by the amount of information.
Adding to the perplexity in recent years is the buzz concerning different chemical sunscreen ingredients, new labelling rules and recent innovations in formulations. Suddenly, the challenge of choosing the proper protection has multiplied exponentially.
Luckily, you’ve come to the right place for all the answers. Here, you’ll find a comprehensive (and alphabetical) sunscreen glossary that explains the most common phrases, ingredients, abbreviations and words associated with sunscreen.
Consider antioxidants the superhero of your skincare routine. They are substances found in several ingredients (such as vitamin C, vitamin E and resveratrol) that help protect the skin’s surface from oxidative damage caused by free radicals, which are, in turn, caused by environmental aggressors like ultraviolet radiation. They work by scavenging those loose electrons (free radicals) so that they can’t cause damage and help repair existing damage.
Are you wondering: What is broad-spectrum sunscreen? Well, you’re not alone. It’s a term that most people have heard of, but what does it actually mean? Essentially, there’s only one way to know if your sunscreen offers UVA coverage: The words “broad spectrum” have to be on the label. According to Health Canada, when you see the logo featuring a circle around the letters UVA this mean the formula offers protection from both UVB rays, which burn skin, and UVA rays, which cause cellular damage like collagen breakdown. In Canada, if a product has this marker on the label, it means that at least one-third of the total SPF provides protection from UVA.
Chemical sunscreen (also known as organic sunscreen) is a type of sun filter that protects skin from UV rays by absorbing them with chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate and Mexoryl. So, we’ve answered the question: What is chemical sunscreen? Now let’s move on to the better question: What does it do? Essentially, it works by absorbing radiation and then releasing it in the form of thermal energy before it penetrates the skin. Vichy uses Mexoryl®-SX and Mexoryl®-XL solar filters in most of its Capital Soleil range.
Clinically tested means that a product (in this case, sunscreen) has been tested in a clinical trial under controlled conditions on different subjects to prove its efficacy. This is where brands will test for specific claims, like being safe for sensitive skin.
Many skincare and cosmetics brands get this stamp of approval to show that their finished product is effective and non-irritating for most skin types. It also helps identify that a product is well tolerated and, in most cases, will not cause a skin reaction. For example, Vichy’s Capital Soleil range offers products that have all been tested under dermatological control.
As straightforward as it sounds, a claim of fragrance-free means that sunscreen (or any personal-care product) has no fragrance materials. In theory, it means that no chemicals have been added to give a product an aroma or mask a scent. Vichy prides itself in offering a fragrance-free sun-care range.
You might have spotted the “GFCO” seal on certain products; this is a designation from the Gluten Intolerance Group. This means that the third party has verified that the sunscreen doesn’t contain any gluten or gluten by-products. A few sunscreen brands contain gluten; while many do not, some may manufacture them in a facility that also processes wheat and gluten materials on the same machinery.
This term is often used in skincare and cosmetics offerings, but what is hypoallergenic sunscreen? It’s neither a legal nor a scientific term, and Health Canada doesn’t regulate this designation. However, it’s commonly used when formulas are made using ingredients that are unlikely to trigger allergic reactions.
These sunscreens, which are also known as physical sunscreens, achieve their SPF factor with physical blockers, using fine particles of minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They sit on the surface of the skin and block and reflect UV light. Vichy chooses to only use titanium dioxide in its Capital Soleil Mineral Tinted UV Lotion SPF 60 because it provides both UVA and UVB protection and blends into skin without leaving a white cast.
This term is used for all kinds of skincare products, but what is non-comedogenic sunscreen? It simply describes skincare and makeup products that have been formulated and tested in such a way that they are unlikely to clog pores or cause comedones (a.k.a. pimples). If you have acne-prone skin, choose a non-comedogenic sunscreen, like Vichy Capital Soleil Anti-Shine Dry Touch UV Lotion SPF 60. It contains a mineral extract called perlite, which is sourced from volcanic rocks. It’s mattifying and helps keep pores unclogged.
What is oil-free sunscreen? It’s exactly how it sounds: It doesn’t contain oil. However, you still need to be aware of occlusive ingredients, like silicones, that technically are not oils but could cause breakouts. When you’re reading the ingredient list, steer clear of products with “thicone.”
This type of sunscreen is also known as chemical sunscreen.
Common in cosmetics and in the food industry, parabens are a group of compounds used as preservatives to stabilize a product’s shelf life. However, they can cause irritation or even allergic reactions in some people. The term “paraben-free” lets consumers know that these chemicals aren’t a part of the product formula. Vichy’s entire sun-care collection is proudly paraben-free.
Physical sunscreen is the same as mineral sunscreen.
This is a relatively new term in sunscreen. It gives consumers peace of mind that their sunscreen doesn’t contain any oxybenzone, octinoxate or octocrylene, all of which are known to damage and potentially kill the ocean’s coral reefs.
We see it on every bottle, but what does SPF stand for? Sun protection factor (SPF) measures how much harmfu solar energy (ultraviolet radiation) it absorbs or reflects away from your skin. But SPF only measures UVB rays, it doesn't tell us anything about protection from UVA. The Canadian Dermatology Association recommends a minimum of SPF 30 and to be safe, no matter what SPF you choose, it's best to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, as well as after swimming or sweating.
Since there’s no actual test to verify that a particular sunscreen is better for certain activities than others, any sunscreen that’s qualified as water-resistant for 80 minutes will do the trick and stand up to excessive sweating. Vichy Idéal Soleil Sport Ultra-Light Refreshing Lotion SPF 60 has been formulated (and tested) to stand up to outdoor activities and has wet skin application technology. Meaning it has a water- and sweat-resistance claim of up to 80 minutes.
Ultraviolet rays, known as UV radiation, are invisible rays that are part of the energy that comes from the sun. They are a higher-energy version of visible light, which can be divided into UVA, UVB and the lesser-known UVC categories. These groups are based on the measurement of their wavelength, which is done in nanometers.
These are the shortest wavelengths. Like UVB, these rays are travel through the air but are absorbed by glass (windows). This type of radiation is mainly absorbed through the ozone layer and does not affect the skin.
All sunscreens that use the term “water-resistant” must undergo testing; subjects get wet and dry off multiple times, and then the sunscreen is tested for effectiveness. Look for this designation if you know you’re going to be swimming or sweating. That means that after 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, you should reapply sunscreen. Vichy’s water-resistant formulas have been tested to last for 80 minutes; look for formulas like Vichy Idéal Soleil Sport Ultra-Light Refreshing Lotion SPF 60. As for Vichy Capital Soleil Kids UV Lotion SPF 50 it delivers 40 minutes of water-resistants.