Wearing sunscreen is a must, of course, but understanding what to look for in an SPF formula will help you reach for it all summer long. Think about it: You'll likely wear the stuff more often if you like how it feels and it works with your lifestyle, right? With the help of experts, we've compiled a checklist of what to keep an eye out for when it comes to your sunscreen. It includes details like ingredients to avoid, the different textures you might encounter, and factors that contribute to the product's wear-time.
Ahead, board-certified dermatologists Dendy Engelman, FACMS, FAAD, and Michele Green, MD weigh in. Read on to learn more.
Meet the Expert
- Dendy Engelman, FACMS, FAAD, is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Schafer Clinic in New York City.
- Michele Green, MD is a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist in New York City where she treats patients for sun damage, sun spots, and sun spot removal.
Look for sunscreens labeled paraben-, phthalate-, and sulfate-free. "Parabens are a group of chemicals that are widely used as artificial preservatives in cosmetic products and other products from foods to textiles to hair care," says Green. "They are a popular ingredient in skincare products for their antibacterial properties and their ability to prolong the life of shelf products."
However, there are recent studies, according to Green, that indicate parabens can be irritating to skin and "disrupt hormones in the body, increase the risk of cancer and other defects." Green points out a 2004 study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where 19 out of 20 women had parabens in their breast tissue. "This is highly concerning and shows the potential for parabens to integrate and remain in our bodily tissues where they can wreak havoc," explains Green.
Our pick for a paraben-free sunscreen is the Kinfield Daily Dew Water-Resistant Sunscreen with SPF 35, below.
Avoid Harsh Ingredients
Harsh ingredients can irritate all skin types, but in particular those with sensitive skin. "Avoid ingredients such as added fragrances, chemicals and dyes," says Engelman. "They do not contribute to the efficacy of sunscreen and these formulas can be irritating to the skin."
Learn the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Sunscreens
Familiarize yourself with the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens. "Both mineral and chemical sunscreens work to your benefit when trying to protect against UV rays," explains Green.
"The main difference between these two types of sunscreens is how they prevent UV damage. Mineral sunscreens are a physical sunscreen and sit on top of the skin to filter out the sun’s damaging UV rays. Common ingredients used in mineral sunscreens include titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Chemical sunscreens typically contain chemical ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and homosalate which are absorbed into the skin. When the chemicals come into contact with UV radiation, the UV rays are converted to heat and reflected off the skin in a chemical reaction."
According to Engelman, the active chemicals can be "irritating to some skin types, and since they are absorbed by the skin, this type of SPF is not considered safe for children and pregnant women to use. For the same reason, though, it tends to be a better choice for those with mature skin (as the product won’t settle into creases) and for occasions when you are active outdoors (since you can’t sweat it off)."
Green notes that there has been some concern over the safety of some ingredients used in chemical sunscreen. "Despite this controversy, chemical sunscreens have been used for years, and applying sunscreen is better than not using any," she says. "Some crowd-pleasing chemical sunscreens include La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen SPF 60 and Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen.
Choose the Right Formula for Your Skin Type
For sensitive skin, Engelman likes says a fragrance-free sunscreen can limit reaction and inflammation. "Baby formulas can be effective in combating UV ray skin damage," she says, and adds, "physical sunscreen is less irritating and better suited for sensitive skin because it sits on top of your skin and begins working immediately. I love La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Mineral Tinted SPF 50 and Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50."
For oily skin, Engelman likes a "matte or powdered formula, as they help absorb excess oil. Plus, they’re easy to reapply throughout the day. I recommend Isdin Mineral Brush SPF 50. Elta MD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 is another great pick for oily and acne-prone skin because it actually lightly exfoliates and helps regulate the buildup of oil on the skin with lactic acid."
For acne-prone skin, Green likes Cetaphil Dermacontrol Facial Moisturizer. "It's a good option, hypoallergenic, and non-comedogenic so it won’t clog your pores. It has a matte finish and contains special Micropearl technology, which absorbs excess oil and stops shine."
For mature skin, Engelman says, "I suggest using a sunscreen that combats signs of aging and pollutants, in addition to protecting the skin from sun damage. Elizabeth Arden PREVAGE City Smart Broad Spectrum SPF 50 is a great pick."
Look for "Broad Spectrum" Formulas
Make sure your sunscreen pick offers protection from UVA and UVB rays. "UVA rays tend to affect our skin more because they penetrate deeper than UVB," begins Engelman, "but both cause damage to the skin, so it’s important to make sure you’re protecting yourself from both. Look for 'broad spectrum' on the label, as this indicates that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays."
She loves the broad spectrum SkinMedica Essential Defense Mineral Shield Broad Spectrum SPF 32 formula "because it contains titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for optimal coverage."
Choose a SPF of 30 or Higher
Look for sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. "A broad spectrum SPF of 30 will about prevent 97 percent of UVB rays from reaching your skin, while an SPF of 50 will only allow about two percent of rays through," explains Green. "Sunscreen should be applied daily, every two hours."
One formula that checks all the boxes above is the Naked Sunday's SPF 50+ Collagen Glow Creme, which also leaves skin looking radiant.
Choose a Format That Makes Reapplication Easy
You might have one formula for at-home application and another for on-the-go use, since reapplication is so critical when it comes to sun protection from sunscreen. Green notes that sunscreen should be applied, "every two hours."
A spray formula can be great for reapplication. "It’s hard to determine how much you’re using and which spots you may have missed, so in my opinion, they are better suited for reapplication after first using a cream sunscreen," says Engelman. "Just be sure to rub in the spray.
She also loves solid sunscreens that come in a stick or compact form because they're easy to "apply on-the-go and bring with you for quick reapplication. One of my favorites is Skinbetter Sunbetter Tone Smart SPF 68 Sunscreen Compact, which also has a mattifying, skin-perfecting finish."
Choose a Sunscreen That Works for Your Skin Tone
This is easier said than done for those with deeper skin tones. People with deeper complexions or melanin skin types might consider, according to Engelman, "chemical sunscreens which do not leave behind residue on any skin tone. However, I do caution you to check for ingredients that can be potentially harmful to the skin and the environment, such as oxybenzone. Glo Skin Beauty C-Shield Anti-Pollution Moisturizing Tint SPF 30+ comes in 10 flexible shades so there’s a match for any skin tone, and it’s also oil-free, hydrating and packed with antioxidants for additional protection."
Don't Rely on Makeup with SPF Alone
Engelman says that makeup with SPF may not be enough protection, depending on the formula. " I don’t recommend anything below SPF 30, as you could still be exposing yourself to the risk of damage."
She recommends you still add regular sunscreen to your makeup routine. "Even if your foundation does contain some SPF, I generally recommend applying true sunscreen as a last step in your skincare routine, then layering foundation on top if needed. Depending on how much coverage you want, a tinted SPF could be a good replacement for foundation altogether."
Choose a Comfortable-Wearing Texture
Because, of course, most people don't love the feeling of a greasy, sticky formula. Those who are particularly averse should opt for a matte formula. "Many mattifying sunscreens are non-greasy and lightweight," says Green, who likes the Supergoop! Matte Screen SPF 40. "This product is 100% mineral-based and works to leave your skin looking mattified. It is also reef-safe meaning that its ingredients will not negatively impact the environment, particularly the coral reefs."