You’re rocking your favorite breezy sundress and donning those stylist-approved sunglasses, but are you stocked up on the season’s most vital accoutrement? Make no mistake about it—the hottest accessory of summer (and all seasons, for that matter) is sunscreen. Also known as the ultimate holy grail of skin health, sunscreen is our top beauty secret and the one product every dermatologist swears by for younger, more radiant-looking skin. No matter if you have a porcelain complexion, melanin-rich skin, or are somewhere in between, sunscreen is critical to combat wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, premature aging, and most importantly, skin cancer.
Unfortunately, not all sunscreens are created equal.
We’re more likely to wear sunscreen daily when it feels and looks good on our skin. However, it takes a lot of trial and error to find a sunscreen that fits all of our skincare needs. Some are too oily, some leave a dreaded white cast, while others pile and cake under makeup. The struggle is enough to make some go without SPF entirely, which is never a good idea. Not to worry, because with the help of Dr. Anne Beal, M.D., M.P.H., founder of AbsoluteJOI, we break down everything you need to know when choosing a sunscreen, including our favorite SPF products that will not only protect you from the sun’s harmful rays, but are also easy to apply (and reapply). Plus, they will actually make you look forward to slathering yourself in sunscreen daily.
Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreen
When choosing a sunscreen, you’ve probably wondered what the difference is between chemical and mineral sunscreen. Is one better than the other? What’s the difference? Dr. Beal guides us through the various distinctions to help you decide which formula is right for you.
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays, converting them into heat, and then releasing them from the body. “These sunscreens are clear, don’t leave a white cast, and they’re generally lightweight and easy to apply,” notes Dr. Beal. Because they pack a powerful punch without needing to be in high concentrations, the consistency of chemical sunscreens are typically thinner, making them ideal for everyday use. Chemical sunscreens also penetrate more deeply into the skin, making them highly effective against premature aging and the risk of cancer.
While chemical sunscreens shield rays from burning your skin, your body still absorbs the chemicals, and some may even seep into your bloodstream. Dr. Beal notes that some users may have allergies to the ingredients included (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, avobenzone) and experience skin irritation after use. She also points out that, “when we wash off these products or go swimming while wearing them, the chemicals end up in our local waters and have been found to cause damage to marine ecosystems.” To counter this, look for formulas made without oxybenzone, which is the ingredient that is most problematic for the environment.
Mineral sunscreen (commonly referred to as physical sunscreen) is exactly what it sounds like: sunscreen that uses minerals (most commonly zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) to protect skin from the sun. Like a bunch of tiny mirrors reflecting light, mineral sunscreens sit on top of your skin to reflect UV rays so they don’t penetrate to the underlying layers. Since mineral sunscreen is not absorbed as much as chemical formulas, it’s considered the more non-toxic option (plus, it’s better for the environment). However, mineral sunscreens do tend to leave a white cast on the skin, because they are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which include the same ingredients you find in diaper cream. Although this ingredient is thicker, more difficult to apply, and looks less than stellar on some skin types, it does help reduce inflammation and provide an excellent protective barrier against the sun.
Here’s the good news though—mineral sunscreens have come a long way in recent years, resulting in lighter, more flattering formulas that work across a wider range of skin tones. Dr. Beal adds that, “The biggest benefit to mineral sunscreens is they are a healthier option for skin, are soothing, and protective.” They are great for people with sensitive skin (rosacea, eczema, and perioral dermatitis) because they are non-irritating and not as harsh as chemical sunscreens.
So what type does Dr. Beal recommend? “I tend to recommend mineral sunscreens first, but there is a definite role for chemical options too.” At the end of the day, the sunscreen you choose depends on your own needs, how your skin reacts, and how the formulas look on your skin.
What to Look for In a Sunscreen
The most important thing to look for when shopping for sunscreen is to find one that protects against both UVA and UVB light, or in other words, a broad-spectrum formula. “You need protection against both because UVA light goes deeper and causes long-term damage that causes aging, while UVB light is more superficial but intense and causes sunburn. Exposure to both types of UV light is associated with certain types of skin cancer,” shares Dr. Beal.
Be aware that a sunscreen is not broad-spectrum if it has an SPF of less than 15. So always opt for a sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15 or higher (more on that below) to ensure the best protection. Overall, you’ll want something that applies easily, is not irritating, and looks great with your skin tone.
What’s the Ideal SPF Number to Use?
SFP, which stands for sun protection factor, is a measure of how much solar energy (UV radiation) is required to produce sunburn on protected skin (with sunscreen) compared to the amount of solar energy required to produce sunburn on unprotected skin (without sunscreen). Therefore, as the SPF number increases, the sunburn protection increases.
Does this mean that you can stay in the sun longer if you’re wearing an SPF 50 vs. SPF 15? Not quite. There are many factors that come into play, such as the sun’s intensity (it’s much stronger at 2:00 pm than it is at 8:00 am), the amount of sunscreen applied (if you’re like Gwyneth Paltrow, then you’re definitely not applying enough), and how often you’re reapplying it. Also, if you have a lighter complexion, you’re more likely to absorb UV rays faster than those with darker skin under the same conditions.
In other words, the SPF number on a sunscreen does not necessarily let you know how much time you can be in the sun. Rather, it is a relative measure of the amount of sun protection a sunscreen provides. For broad spectrum protection, you should aim for an SPF 30 or higher, but the decision to use a higher value SPF is really up to you and your needs throughout the day. Will you be in intense sunlight? Opt for a higher value SPF. Are you just working from home and taking a lunch break down to the corner deli? An SPF of at least 30 should suit you just fine. The most important thing, however—and what makes sunscreen the most effective—is reapplying throughout the day.
How Often to Apply Sunscreen
Dr. Beal advises that you should apply sunscreen 30 minutes before heading outdoors, and aim to apply a shot glass-sized amount (yes, really) to your entire body (don’t forget your ears, neck, and top of your head, as well). It’s recommended to reapply the same amount every two hours, or immediately after swimming or a heavy sweat session. You may be wondering, how do I reapply sunscreen after I’ve put on a full face of makeup? Or perhaps, how do I reapply sunscreen to my body if I’m out and about for the day? Our favorite solutions are setting powders and sprays, all which are included below in our list of the best head-to-toe sunscreens that are guaranteed to make you an avid sunscreen-wearer, no excuses.
We've tested hundreds of sunscreens (no kidding) to find formulas that provide excellent protection, are easy to apply, and feel great on skin. Want to know what SPFs made the cut? Scroll down to read our top picks for year-round protection.