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How to Choose the Right Sunscreen for You

dark skinned woman sunscreen
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD - Blogs
By Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MDBoard-certified dermatologistJuly 14, 2020

There’s nothing like months of quarantine to make you appreciate the simple pleasure of feeling the sun on your skin - but like so many pleasures in life, too much can be a bad thing.

Over 5 million skin cancers are treated every year in our country, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, and almost all of them are the direct result of too much ultraviolet (UV) exposure. Just five sunburns can double your risk of melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer. And even if you avoid burning, gradual doses of UV exposure from the sun (or tanning beds) can cause sun spots, sagging skin, wrinkles, an uneven skin tone, skin cancers, and precancers. (How was that for a nagging dermatologist-slash-mom message? Too much? Unfortunately, it’s all true!)

During summer, skin-scalding ultraviolet B light reaches its peak, making this an important time to protect your skin. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends avoiding peak hours of sunshine, seeking the shade, protecting your skin and eyes with hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing, and liberally applying broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen every 2 hours, or sooner if you’ve been swimming or sweating.

Your dermatologist truly does not care which sunscreen you choose, as long as it’s labelled broad spectrum, packs SPF 30 or higher, and you like it enough to wear it consistently. You shouldn’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money on sunscreen for it to be effective. In fact, if a product feels too precious, we may not apply enough to stay protected. This guide is designed to help you hone in on a product you’ll like, and ideally even love. Whatever you end up choosing, layer it on regularly and your healthy, glowing skin will thank you.

I have richly-pigmented skin. It’s important for everyone to protect their skin from ultraviolet damage, regardless of skin type, since too much exposure ages the skin, leaving it wrinkled, spotted, and more likely to develop skin cancer. In individuals of color, certain sunscreens can make the complexion look unnatural or even chalky, which is why lightweight, sheer, or tinted formulas are often preferred. Some options include: Bolden SPF 30 Brightening Moisturizer with SPF 30, Olay Complete Daily Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30, Shiseido Urban Environment Tinted UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 43 or Ultimate Sun Protector Lotion SPF 50, It Cosmetics CC+ Cream with SPF 50+, and Black Girl Sunscreen Moisturizing Sunscreen for Face and Body SPF 30.

I have sensitive skin: For people with rosacea or anyone prone to skin allergies or irritation, mineral sunscreens are the kindest and gentlest. They contain the soothing, protective ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Look for one that’s free of fragrances and common allergens, since the inactive ingredients in many sunscreens can cause skin reactions. Some options for face include: Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen with SPF 50, Isdin Eryfotona Actinica Ultralight Emulsion Broad Spectrum SPF 50+, CoTZ Tinted Flawless Complexion SPF 50, and Avene Mineral Sunscreen Fluid SPF 50+. Some options for body include: Elta MD UV Physical Broad Spectrum SPF 41, Coppertone Pure & Simple SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion, Vanicream Sunscreen Sport Broad Spectrum SPF 35, and Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30+.

I’m prone to breakouts. Non-comedogenic, oil-free formulas can protect your skin without contributing to blemishes. Some options include: Elta MD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46, Cetaphil DermaControl Oil Control Moisturizer SPF 30, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen SPF 60, Olay Complete Lotion Moisturizer Sensitive with Broad-Spectrum SPF 30, Neutrogena Clear Face Break-Out Free Liquid Lotion Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 55.

I hate a greasy feel. A fast-drying spray, gel, or serum may offer the weightless texture you’re looking for. Just make sure to apply and rub it in thoroughly, or you could miss spots and end up with a patchy sunburn. Some light options include: CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30, Supergoop! Unscreen Sunscreen SPF 40, Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel Lotion SPF 50, Coola Full Spectrum 360° Sun Silk Drops Organic Sunscreen SPF 30, and Glossier Invisible Shield SPF 35. Some spray options include: Sun Bum Original Sunscreen Spray, Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Clear Spray Sunscreen SPF 30, Pacifica Mineral Sunscreen Coconut Probiotic SPF 30, Alba Botanica Hawaiian Clear Spray Sunscreen Nourishing Coconut SPF 50, and Australian Gold Continuous Spray Sunscreen SPF 30.

I love the outdoors. For the avid boater, fisher, surfer, swimmer, sailor, runner, hiker, gardener, or golfer, frequent sun exposure can add up to cause significant sun damage, early skin aging, and a higher risk of skin cancer. Sport sprays, creams, or lotions with SPF 50 or higher labelled water-resistant or very water resistant can help to protect skin the longest. Dermatologists recommend a reapplication break every 80 minutes if you’ve been swimming or sweating, or every 2 hours if you’ve managed to stay dry. Some options include: Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70, No-Ad 50 Sport Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion, Banana Boat Simply Protect Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, Neutrogena CoolDry Sport Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50, and Badger Sport Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 35.

I have kids. Sunscreen is generally not recommended for babies under 6 months of age, when hats, shady areas, and protective clothing are considered safest. For tots and older children, sunscreen becomes important due to the significant ultraviolet exposure many children rack up during their active, growing years. Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide offer the safest coverage for sensitive, growing complexions. Some options include: Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, Bioderma Photoderm Kid Foam SPF 50+, Aveeno Kids Continuous Protection Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Lotion, Coppertone Pure & Simply Baby SPF 50, and Blue Lizard Kid’s Australian Sunscreen SPF 30. 

I have dry skin. There’s usually no need to layer on sunscreen and moisturizer separately. Instead, look for a two-in-one product: moisturizer containing SPF, or a sunscreen labelled as moisturizing or hydrating. Some options include: La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer SPF 30, Elta MD UV Daily Broad Spectrum SPF 40, Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer with SPF 50+, Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Daily Moisturizer with SPF 30, and Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer Natural Skin Perfector SPF 30.

I’m heading to the beach. SPF50 or higher sunscreen and frequent reapplications (every 80 minutes or so) may help avoid burning on beach days. Preliminary research suggests that two sunscreen ingredients, octinoxate and oxybenzone, may be damaging to coral reefs. That’s why Hawaii has banned these two ingredients. If you’ll be swimming or snorkeling, consider products labelled “reef safe.” Some options include: Thinksport Sunscreen SPF 50, Supergoop! Play Everyday Lotion SPF 50 with Sunflower Extract, Banana Boat Sun Comfort Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, Maui Babe Reef Safe Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, and Raw Elements Face + Body Tube SPF 30.

I need extra coverage for my nose, ears, and hands. Stick formulas allow for quick touch-ups over out-there areas, and are easy to stash in the car, your pocket, or your beach bag. Some options include: Clinique Sun SPF 45 Targeted Protection Stick, Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Sport Stick SPF 50, MD Solar Sciences Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 40, Shiseido Clear Stick UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 50+, and (the very colorful) Bare Republic Neon Sunscreen Sticks SPF 50.

What about my lips? Yep, they need sun protection, too. Dermatologists frequently diagnose and treat precancers and skin cancers on the lips. Reapplication is important since - between lip-licking, drink-sipping, conversations, mealtimes, and more - lips often don’t hold onto sunscreen for long. Some options include: Aquaphor Lip Protectant and Sunscreen Ointment Broad Spectrum SPF 30, Burt’s Bees 100% Natural All Weather Moisturizing Lip Balm SPF 15, Coola Liplux Organic Lip Balm SPF 30, Chapstick Sun Defense SPF 25, and O’Keefe’s Lip Repair SPF 35 Lip Balm.

I don’t want to mess up my makeup. SPF powders can allow for a no-fuss touch-up that may boost your level of sun protection. But note that the FDA has called for more research on the effectiveness of SPF powders. You may need to dust one on liberally (or wear a light layer of SPF lotion underneath) to help ensure you stay protected. Some options include: Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50, Derma E Sun Protection Mineral Face Powder SPF 30, Tarte Cosmetics Tarteguard 30 Mineral Powder Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30, Jane Iredale Powder Me SPF Dry Sunscreen SPF 30, and Bare Minerals Original Foundation Broad Spectrum SPF 15.

I’ve got an uneven skin tone: Tinted SPF products may help to protect and cover skin with sun spots, post-acne marks, melasma (tan or brown patches on the cheeks, forehead, upper lip, or jawline), and vitiligo (an autoimmune condition that causes the skin to lose its pigment). Sunscreens containing iron oxide (listed as an inactive ingredient on product labels) offer a bonus - they help filter out visible light, since it can contribute to uneven pigment, just like UV light can. Some options include: SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50, Neova DNA Damage Control Silc Sheer 2.0, TiZO 3 Age Defying Fusion Tinted Face Mineral Sunscreen SPF 40, Drunk Elephant Umbre Tinte Physical Daily Defense SPF 30, and Dermablend Cover Creme Full Coverage Foundation SPF 30.

I have asthma or another lung condition. You may want to avoid spray sunscreens and choose a cream, lotion, gel, or stick instead, since the safety of inhaling sunscreen ingredients hasn’t been well-studied.

I have questions about sunscreen safety. Sunscreen has proven health benefits: It can lower the risk of sunburn, skin damage, and skin cancer, including melanoma. However, some people have understandably taken pause after recent studies showed certain chemical sunscreen ingredients (applied liberally to 75% of the body every 4 hours while remaining inside) could later be detected in the bloodstream. It’s important to note that these were not safety studies, additional research is ongoing, and Food & Drug Administration (FDA) researchers have emphasized that people should continue to use sunscreen to help protect their skin from the sun. But for anyone with concerns, mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are regarded as safe and effective by the FDA, without need for further study. Options include many of the mineral sunscreens listed above under sensitive skin types, children, no-mess makeup, beach days, and other categories. More to consider: Supergoop! Zincscreen 100% Mineral Lotion, CoTZ Sensitive Face & Body Mineral Sunscreen SPF 40, Badger Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Natural Mineral Sunscreen Cream, Coppertone Pure & Simple SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion, and Blue Lizard Active 30+ Mineral Based Sunscreen.

I have a lot of sun damage or a history of skin cancer. As your doctor has probably told you, if the sun has already caused you trouble, you need to protect your skin as much as possible. Of course, none of us can (or should) completely avoid the sun, so it’s important to rely on a combination of broad hats, protective clothing, shade, sunglasses, and consistent, liberal application of sunscreen. Wearing SPF should be like brushing your teeth - something you do every day of the year, since skin injury from ultraviolet light gradually builds over time. Antioxidant-containing formulas may help to fend off skin-damaging free radicals. Some options include: Vichy Capital Soleil SPF 60 Sunscreen for Face and Body, Replenix Antioxidant Sunscreen moisturizer SPF 50, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Sunscreen SPF 60, Hawaiian Tropic Antioxidant + Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 30, and Neutrogena Age Shield Face Lotion Sunscreen with Broad Spectrum SPF 110.

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About the Author
Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD

Laurel Naversen Geraghty, MD, is a Stanford-trained dermatologist, former Glamour beauty editor, and journalist who has written for The New York Times, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, Women’s Health, and other publications. She has made many television appearances and co-hosted The Dermatology Show on Sirius-XM throughout medical school. Her personal skincare blog can be found on Instagram and Facebook.

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