Polarity of the surrounding medium affects the excited states of UV-B sunscreens. Therefore understanding excited state processes in a mixed polarity model system similar to skin is essential. We report the excited state lifetimes, quantum yields, radiative and non-radiative rates of three sunscreens. Among the three UV-B sunscreens studied, octyl salicylate emits from a single excited state, while padimate O and octyl methoxy cinnamate show multiple states. The radiative rates of salicylate and cinnamate are approximately constant, while that of padimate O depends strongly on solvent. The non-radiative rates of all sunscreens vary with solvent polarity. Compared to salicylate and cinnamate, padimate O is complex to analyze because of its two emission peaks and one peak's strong dependence on the dielectric constant. High absorbance, broad absorption peak with small fluorescence quantum yield, and low radiative rate make octyl methoxy cinnamate a superior UV-B sunscreen ingredient. The complexity in excited-state analysis shows that the lifetimes of the sunscreens are critical parameters, in addition to absorbance and quantum yield. Fluorescence lifetime substantiates the use of polystyrene nanospheres as a model host to study the photo-physical properties of sunscreen in a heterogeneous environment. © 2007 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.