How to Find the Best Sunscreen
By the power of sunscreen, you can work and play outdoors without suffering from sunburn or premature signs of aging, all the while minimizing your risk of skin cancer. Due to increasing awareness of the importance of sunscreen, it's now ubiquitous, available as the classic white lotion and present in everything from makeup to moisturizer to clothing.
Yet with so many different types of sunscreen in varying SPF levels available, it's tough to know which is the best sunscreen for your skin. Below, we created this helpful sunscreen buying guide so you know what to look for.
For most people, SPF (sun-protection factor) is the first thing considered when shopping for a sunscreen. The number indicates how well the product protects your skin against UVB rays, the type of radiation that causes sunburn.
Most skincare experts recommend using a product that has an SPF of at least 15, though people with fair skin or certain skin conditions may want to use a sunscreen SPF of 30 or higher.
Does higher SPF mean stronger protection?
Yes, but as the SPF number climbs, you get diminishing returns on your UVB protection. For instance: SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93% of UV rays, SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks up to 98%.
What is broad-spectrum sunscreen?
Broad-spectrum sunscreens are key to skin-cancer prevention, and they help you maintain your skin's health and youthful appearance. They protect skin from both UVB and UVA rays. While UVB rays are responsible for sunburn, UVA rays cause premature signs of aging like wrinkles and age spots. Both types are harmful and can lead to skin cancer. Look for sunscreens, whether physical or chemical, with a mention of broad spectrum on the label.
Besides taking SPF into consideration, you'll also want to decide if you'd rather use a chemical or a physical sunscreen. What's the difference? Simple: a chemical sunscreen works by absorbing UV rays when they hit your skin, while a physical sunscreen serves as a physical barrier between your skin and the UV rays. This is why you might hear physical sunscreens referred to as "sunblocks."
Ingredients to look for: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone
- Easily absorbed, so they're less likely to leave a filmy residue on your skin
- Penetrate skin rather than sit on top of it, so you're less likely to have holes in your coverage
- May be irritating to those with sensitive skin
- Need time to absorb before working, typically around 20–30 minutes
- Can dry out skin and clog pores
Ingredients to look for: mineral-based ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
- Less likely to irritate skin
- Starts working as soon as it's applied
- Most are naturally broad spectrum
- Formulas are often thicker and harder to rub in
- Rub off easier and need to be reapplied more frequently
- May leave white marks on skin and clothing and can be hard to wear under makeup
- Must be applied generously, since gaps in molecules can let UV rays in
Types of Sunscreens
Once upon a time, thick, gooey, white sunblocks were the only option. These days, though, lotions are lighter and easier to wear than ever, while the selection of sun-shielding products also includes sunscreen gels, sprays, moisturizers, and even makeups formulated with SPF. Here, we pick apart the three most common forms you're likely to come across.
- Creamy formulas may help hydrate skin (depending on the ingredients)
- White color makes it easy to see where you're applying, so you're less likely to miss spots
- May easily come off with perspiration
- Can leave white marks on clothes
- More resistant to perspiration; an excellent sunscreen to wear while exercising
- Dries fast
- No white marks on skin or clothing
- Usually clear, so more likely to miss spots during application
- Must be frequently reapplied
- Fast drying and non-greasy
- Applies quickly
- Easy to apply to hard to reach areas, such as the back or shoulder blades
- Hard to see where you're applying
- May contain alcohol, which can dry out or irritate skin
Sunscreen for Kids
There are special circumstances to consider when choosing the best sunscreen for kids. For example, kids often have sensitive skin, so a mineral-based sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dixoide might be best if irritation is a concern.
But consider how you'll be using sunscreen on your child as well. Are you worried about sun exposure while swimming? If so, you'll want water-resistant sunscreen, and you'll want to reapply it often. According to the FDA, sunscreen is "water resistant" when it stays effective after 40 minutes in the water and "very water resistant" after 80 minutes.
Also: if you and your kids are going to be outside for a long time, a spray sunscreen might be the most convenient, since it's easy to reapply every few hours. Just make sure you cover every spot!
Sunscreens by Skin Type
For oily skin: Try a lightweight, water-based formula with ingredients like silica or isododecane, which help absorb oil rather than add to it with plant extracts or fatty acids.
Try: EltaMD UV Physical SPF 41 ($35.25)
For dry skin: Try a moisturizing sunscreen with ingredients like lanolin, dimethicones, or other oils.
For fair skin: It's all about consistent coverage. Be sure to reapply frequently, especially if you're being active.
For dark skin: Chemical sunscreens blend easily into all skin types to provide invisible coverage (physical sunscreens can appear chalky on dark skin).
For mature skin: Look for ingredients such as retinol, peptides, and plant extracts, which may stimulate collagen production and even out skin tone. Antioxidants can also help to reduce lines and spots.