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Product Reviews, Sun Protection in Detail

Product Review Rubric for Sunscreens

800px-Caesar3.svgWhen I first wrote the Product Review Rubric for Non-Sunscreens, which I updated recently in case you want to re-read it, I pretty much assumed it would suffice as a one-size-fits-all kind of rule book. However, while reviewing sunscreens for the Sun Protection Page, I found myself evaluating them using a completely different set of rules. Therefore, it makes sense to create a separate rubric for evaluating sunscreens so that you guys can better understand why I recommend certain sunscreens and not others.

Since I always recommend a separate antioxidant product to be applied underneath a sunscreen (as you will see in the Ideal Routine and Sun Protection Pages), when it comes to sunscreens, all I care about are the UV filters and the vehicle. I don’t need fancy-schmancy ingredients like antioxidants and anti-inflammatories–though they are welcome (conditionally), JUST SUN PROTECTION. Therefore, if a sunscreen doesn’t contain any type of those ingredients, it will not receive any kind of penalty.

On the other hand however, I realize that many people are not willing and/or not able to apply multiple products during their morning routines; they prefer combination products (i.e. sunscreen + antioxidants). Therefore, I will indicate whether I believe a sunscreen contains adequate levels of antioxidants to warrant my recommendation of being a combination product, and if the UV filters alone provide enough protection against both UVB (and UVA) rays, since we know that antioxidants and anti-inflammatories can exaggerate a sunscreen’s true SPF rating.

All product reviews for sunscreens will follow this format:

Protection Against UVB Light:

Labeled SPF Rating:

Theoretical SPF Rating:

In this section, I will discuss whether a sunscreen’s UV filters can realistically achieve the labeled SPF rating. Any potential vehicular influences will also be discussed here. Finally, looking at both the Extinction and Transmission Profiles below, the likelihood of a UVB “bias” will be discussed.

The pictures of the two (2) sunscreen-specific UV profiles obtained from the BASF Sunscreen Simulator will be placed here, between the two “Protection” paragraphs.

Protection Against UVA Light:

Labeled UVA-PF Rating:

Theoretical UVA-PF Rating:

The amount of protection a sunscreen provides against (short) UVA-II will be discussed minimally. The focus will be on how much protection a sunscreen provides against UVA-I rays–specifically, how well it protects against mid-range UVA-I rays versus endpoint UVA-I rays (if any of those at all). And as with the UVB section, the likelihood of a UVA “bias” will be similarly discussed.


No matter the potency of a sunscreen (in realistic scenarios), if it’s not at least mostly photostable, such a sunscreen is pretty much worthless. Therefore, this section will discuss how photostable a sunscreen is by again, drawing meaning from the two photos above.


Every other relevant topic will be thrown in this section. The discussion of things like the presence or absence of antioxidants and other notable ingredients will be noted here, as will the texture and color/tint if I’ve had a chance to try the reviewed sunscreen.


This will be a summary of everything I’ve said, plus any last thoughts I may have on the reviewed sunscreen.

Recommend: YES or NO

Also, I will include the following Checklist ONLY IF the sunscreen was shown to be at least mostly photostable:

Level of UVA-I Protection: (Decent, Good, Very Good, or Excellent)

Combination Product? YES or NO

Only Contains Inorganic UV Filters? YES or NO

Fragrance and Essential Oil-Free? YES or NO


Let me know if you guys like this format, and if you think I’m missing or including something that is (not) necessary.

***Unlike with non-sunscreen products, sunscreens will not be a given a numerical score.

About John

The Triple Helixian is an unbiased science and research-based site that attempts to clarify and elucidate questions about skin care, while aspiring to be the most thorough and complete source of information.


10 thoughts on “Product Review Rubric for Sunscreens

  1. Can I just say you are amazing? 😀 I was looking for some skincare products and whilst scrolling down the list of products at Sephora, I thought, “Why should I use what is popular? Reading about each product is going to waste too much time… Of course, John’s website!! TripleHe…something,”

    *Googles your blog with bad typos*

    Haha I’m still trying to memorize how to spell your blog’s name. I normally just head open to my bookmarks so I never bothered to memorize it ;). So yes, I am about to find out which products you approve of and love. Then I am stopped by this plain impressive post.

    Since you’ve surely thought a lot coming up with this rubric, I’ll try to leave some feedback.
    – Would you recommend the product for someone with dry or oily, etc. skin type? Perhaps if it stays matte, drying, or emollient on the skin.
    – White cast factor on a scale of invisible to geisha because many of us care about whether it’s okay for more an just a hike or day at the beach. We don’t want to look like death EVERY day hahaha.
    – $$$/oz or L

    Mere suggestions! I can’t wait to read the new reviews. I’m quite late commenting on this post but better than never!

    Posted by Janessa | August 5, 2013, 4:53 pm
    • LOL sorry. The name is a bit complicated.

      As for your feedback, I love them!

      1. With sunscreens, I can’t specifically say which product is always better for oily or dry skin types. My personal sunscreen is actually not that appropriate for oily skin types, but I use it anyways. Because it’s more of a personal preference, I decided to NOT categorize sunscreens according to dry or oily skin types. I did do this however, for all the other product recommendations, except chemical exfoliants.

      2. As for the matte, drying, etc… characteristics, a lot of that is based off of personal experience. So again, I leave it up to each individual to decide. My goal is to help streamline and narrow down the potential list of candidates, since the options are overwhelming at first.

      3. Yes, I will be indicating which inorganic sunscreens have/do not have a white cast, depending on whether or not I’ve actually tried said products.

      4. Yep, I’ve done $/oz calculations and price categories for every type of product. 🙂

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

      Posted by John | August 12, 2013, 8:29 am
  2. That is how I hoped you would evaluate sunscreens. Because my main concern with sunscreens is if they provide sun protection, despite any antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, etc (and Beautypedia reviews can be quite irritating always rating sunscreen on wether or not they have a considerable amount of these compounds, and ignoring small amounts of UVA filters). So I’m glad you picked that system, and telling when a product is a combination one is also a great idea!

    Posted by Lucas | June 4, 2013, 9:10 am
    • Phew, nice to know we’re on the same page!

      I agree that the whole super low UVA protection + necessity of antioxidants for a good+ review, is a super annoying thing that most people just believe. Sigh. Ah well, let’s just hope that when more people see these sunscreen reviews, and hopefully click the rubric link, they will become more aware and knowledgeable!

      Posted by John | June 5, 2013, 4:37 pm
  3. Maybe add ‘recommend: yes or no’ at the end?

    Posted by Toph | June 3, 2013, 4:26 pm
    • Hm, I thought that the whole “If a sunscreen is not at least mostly photostable…” covered this, since I wouldn’t recommend a sunscreen that isn’t photostable. But sure, that’s a good idea! I mean, adding that doesn’t take up much space anyways, and it could really help make things more clear for people who don’t want to read the entire review (though most of them shouldn’t be very long).

      Posted by John | June 3, 2013, 7:46 pm
  4. If one is interested in long wavelength UVA I protection, the only rating out there is Critical Wavelength. The PFA rating is only good for UVA II evaluation.
    The good news is that manufactures could be asked to provide this data. The FDA has mandated the Critical Wavelength methodology that must be used to make a broad spectrum change so this data is known with a common methology. The FDA also required demonstated photostability for a broad spectrum claim.
    The Critical Wavelength should be on the labels for consumers to see…it is that important.

    Posted by Karl Gruber M.D. | June 3, 2013, 9:28 am
    • Hm, I’m quite positive that UVA-PF factors in both UVA-II and UVA-I rays. Although, I’m curious to know from where you got the idea that it doesn’t.

      As for the Critical Wavelength test, I think we’ve already discussed this. But, I could be thinking of someone else. CW is only a relative evaluation of the overall protection a sunscreen provides. By no means does it suggest the total amount of UVA-1 protection (a sunscreen provides). For example, 1% of uncoated ZnO would yield a very high CW of 382 nm. Yet, that tells me nothing about how much UVA-I protection is achieved. In fact, that little ZnO would give an incredibly low SPF and UVA-PF rating; you’d burn and tan very quickly. 😦 You can argue that 1% of ZnO is not a relevant amount when it comes to your average inorganic sunscreen–and you’d be right. But using any example would prove my point.

      Let’s say sunscreen A provides an SPF of 50 and a UVA-PF of 10. Sunscreen B provides an SPF of 15 and a UVA-PF of 5. But because the RELATIVE ratio of UVB to UVA is greater with sunscreen A, sunscreen B would have a higher CW. However, it provides far less actual (absolute) UVA-I protection than sunscreen A, despite the higher CW.

      Overall, I think CW is a good tool for regulatory administrations like the FDA to create a baseline of efficacy for UVA-I protection. But in no way is it the tell-all for the actual amount of protection.

      That’s why I’ll be using the theoretical extinction and transmission profiles generated by the BASF sunscreen simulator. It’s the only tool that the average consumer can rely on. I’ll get into why in the relevant Sun Protection posts.

      I hope that all makes sense!

      Posted by John | June 3, 2013, 7:44 pm
  5. I like the format and that you’ll add to the discussion those products that are multi-purpose. I still grimace whenever someone asks, “But my makeup contains SPF 30. Isn’t that enough?” Of course, I always respond, “Not unless you’re using 1/4 teaspoon of the stuff!” I know the real issue is that it’s a bother having to use so many different products and taking the time for each layer to set so that they don’t pill and rub off. Including multi-purpose products in your evaluations will be a boon for people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to layer products.

    Posted by Eileen | June 3, 2013, 8:51 am

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