It shouldn’t be this difficult, finding the right sunscreen. But there they are, a bewildering array of creams, lotions, and sprays that offer something for every personality, if you will—organic, cruelty-free, and pricey mineral sunscreens for the rich hippie crowd, and “better living through chemistry” sunscreens for the thrifty Costco shopper. And the field will only get more crowded once Congress reach consensus on a bill to speed up FDA approval of 8 new sunscreen ingredients that have been used safely in Europe and Japan for years. “The bill has bipartisan support, which is unusual in this day and age,” says Darrel S. Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology, NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s time that American consumers have access to the same sunscreen agents that the rest of the world has. To my knowledge there are no safety or ethics issues with any of them.”
So what’s a conscientious, and cost-conscious, person to do? I set out to find the pick of the litter from among both types of sunscreens on the market. Physical (also known as mineral) blocks contain tiny particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that reflect UV light away from the skin. But the majority of sunscreens are chemical, meaning they form a thin film to absorb UV radiation before it can penetrate. Some of the latter have gotten a bad rap from organizations like the Environmental Working Group, which cites their possible toxicity (it says a popular ingredient, oxybenzone, could disrupt the hormone system if absorbed through the skin). But most doctors don’t put much stock in the scientific studies that the EWG cites. “There’s a lot of media attention on a small number of uncontrolled, unverified studies suggesting that there may be health risks to some of those chemical ingredients,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in NYC. “But in my opinion there’s no justification that they’re harmful.” What all doctors agree on is that chemical ingredients might irritate sensitive skin, resulting in burning and stinging, and may also incite an allergic reaction. “So I recommend a physical sunscreen to my patients with extra sensitive skin, though the downside is it may leave the skin white or chalky.”
That’s a bit much to ask in return for sun safety. Among my criteria in the search for the perfect sunscreen: it had to be cosmetically elegant, so it’s enjoyable enough to use every morning. (I ditched any sunscreen that looked or smelled like Elmer’s Glue.) It had to offer broad-spectrum protection with an SPF of 30 or higher, meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays to protect against wrinkles, skin cancer, and immune suppression. It couldn’t make my face break out (the creamy, flesh-tinted sticks and compacts did). And since most of us skimp on sunscreen application, using only half as much as we should, it had to really sink in. I slathered each on generously and discarded the ones that, even after 5 minutes, left a filmy residue that rolled off when I tried to rub it in.
THE KEEPERS: Hidden Treasures
While many of the following are niche products, available online or at dermatologist’s offices, you can’t go wrong by hitting a drugstore or big-box store. “Just stick with trusted brands that stand behind their products and have data confirming their efficacy,” says Zeichner. These would be sunscreens by Neutrogena, Aveeno, L’Oréal, Cetaphil, Olay, La Roche Posay, Vichy, and CeraVe. Skip their generic equivalents, he says. “They may have passed the Critical Wavelength Test, required by the FDA to be labeled ‘broad-spectrum,’ but the quality of the protection varies enormously.” So don’t go generic. “Sunscreen is not the place where I tell people to cheap out,” he says.
And, the winners are:
The color is deep enough for dark skin but works for fairer tones too. Pumped with antioxidants for environmental protection, it goes on velvety and absorbs quickly leaving just a matte finish. Created by, among others, a dermatologic oncologist, this sunscreen was my favorite. It’s also the only one on my list that meets the EWG’s stringent (some would say too stringent) criteria for safe sunscreen. Let’s just hope it meets your budget.
Laced with rose hip oil that’s rich in vitamin C to fight free radicals, evening primrose and flaxseed oils to improve elasticity, and shea butter to hydrate, this all-organic product is preservative-free and water resistant to 40 minutes. For those who want a little tint and a perfect finish, this is the one. At $36 for just 1.7 oz., there’s a reason it should be reserved for your mug.
For those still in their acne years (mine never end), this is the skin doctor’s go-to sunscreen to keep pores from being clogged. A white odorless lotion that doesn’t leave a sheen on the skin, it absorbs well and contains vitamin B3 to help fade blemishes and dark spots.
Whether due to its coconut scent or its waterproof ability up to 80 minutes, this chemical sunscreen with vitamin E is beloved by surfers. The white lotion soaked in immediately for a matte finish, and although I applied it liberally to my face and eyelids, it didn’t sweat off nor did the yummy fragrance bother my sensitive peepers.
Talk about a two-fer, this tinted liquid replaces foundation for those blessed with skin that needs only sheer coverage. Packaged in a shaker bottle, this fragrance-free, titanium-rich lotion is what dermatologists recommend for rosacea patients who can’t tolerate chemical blocks.
This fast-absorbing lotion is great for sun-lovers with darker skin because it really does “melt in” for a natural, not ashy, sheen.
This white lotion with a subtle herbal scent feels thick but sinks invisibly into the skin, leaving no telltale gleam. Made by the luxury label Coola, it contains a smidgen of non-organic ingredients to keep the cost down.
This mineral sunscreen from a cosmeceutical company is infused with the antioxidant vitamin E and offered in two shades, PerfecTint Beige and PerfectTint Brown. It has a nice creamy texture that absorbs quickly and leaves the skin feeling great but not greasy.
For hard to reach places at the push of a button:
These formulations are controversial if not used correctly. Dermatologists say the trick is to hold the nozzle 1 to 2 inches from the skin and spray for 1 to 2 seconds or until the skin glistens. Then rub it in. “You need to put some effort in, for a spray to be effective,” says Zeichner.
Subtly scented and chicly packaged, this zinc-based sunscreen has a minimal amount of chemicals, many antioxidants, and a heavy mist that makes for easy, all-over application, leaving the skin with a glow but no oily residue.
Fragrance free, this transparent zinc oxide sprays on white so you can see where you’ve been but dries to a clear, matte finish. Still I found the nozzle a little fiddly and had to press down hard to get a continuous spray.
With a fresh scent and instant drying action, this non-aerosol is a favorite of a golfer we know who sprays it on his scalp, neck, and arms every time he hits the links. No sunburn, not even a freckle after 18 holes.
Love the nozzle and its generous aura of spray, along with the light citrus scent. It kept my skin pale after three sets of tennis in the hottest part of the day.