Everyone knows the first rule of summer: Don’t forget your sunscreen. But we’ve seen article after article lately about how sunscreens don’t really work, that they’re damaging our coral reefs, or that they even cause cancer (… they don’t).
It seems like there are a ton of factors we need to consider before we even step outside in the morning, which is, frankly, just exhausting. So here’s a guide to help you choose sunscreens that are great for you and the environment—plus eight of our current favorites.
First off, here’s what you need to know about UV rays.
Before you can begin to choose the best protection, you need to know what you’re protecting yourself from. Basically, there are two types of ultraviolet rays from the sun that reach the Earth’s surface: UVA and UVB.
J. Scott Kasteler, M.D., describes UVA rays as the “aging” rays—they are prevalent all day, travel through glass (such as car windows), and penetrate deep into the skin, decreasing elasticity and causing wrinkles.
UVB rays have shorter wavelengths and don’t penetrate the skin as deeply, though they are more associated with sunburns and skin cancer, says dermatologist Scott Dunbar, M.D. He emphasizes that both types of UV rays are harmful to the skin and should be protected against with “broad spectrum” sunscreens, which address both UVA and UVB exposure.
What’s the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens?
Chemical sunscreens are products that use chemical compounds to absorb UV rays and then reflect the light back out from the skin. Some common compounds found in these types of sunscreens are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and avobenzone. If you find these on the ingredient list, you’ll know that you’re looking at a chemical sunscreen.
The pros of chemical sunscreen are that it tends to be thinner, more spreadable, and less is needed than its mineral counterpart for a similar amount of coverage. Dunbar recommends using about a full shot glass worth of lotion to cover your entire body, and he stresses that reapplication every two hours is critical to the sunscreen performing to its advertised SPF rating.
The cons of chemical sunscreens are varied and seem to be expanding as more research is conducted. One drawback is that studies have shown chemical sunscreens may irritate sensitive skin. Patch-testing a sunscreen before applying it over your body is a good idea if you tend to react to products with lots of ingredients and fragrances. It is also recommended that you wait at least 15 minutes for chemical sunscreens to take full effect.
Multiple studies have also linked chemical filters to endocrine disruption in animals and cells, and many of these chemicals have been detected in Americans. Studies show this disruption can be associated with altered hormone activity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and impaired functioning of the thyroid, liver, or kidneys.
Research is ongoing in this area, but The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization that reports on the potential toxicity of beauty products and corporate accountability (among other things), notes that many sunscreens in the U.S. would not be allowed in Europe and strongly recommends using mineral sunscreens instead of chemical. Many chemical sunscreens are also associated with coral reef damage (more on that in a minute).
Mineral sunscreens, often referred to as physical blockers or physical sunscreens, contain mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, that actually sit on your skin and block the UV rays on a molecular level. The minerals are usually the first thing on the ingredient list and will clue you into which kind of sunscreen you’re holding.
Dermatologist Marie Jhin, M.D., author of Asian Beauty Secrets, prefers broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen since it isn’t absorbed like chemical options. Physical blockers are also great for those with sensitive skin, as they tend to be less irritating, are naturally broad spectrum, don’t have a waiting period for effectiveness, and have a longer shelf life. The cons are a white appearance (which will show on most skin tones) and that you’ll need to apply generously and more frequently, since they can rub off and you need lots of coverage for protection.
SPF over 50 is not necessarily a myth.
There is a lot of controversy over SPF 50+ ratings. A study conducted this year revealed that SPF 100 protected more against sunburn than SPF 50. While one study doesn’t make this irrefutable fact, reaching for higher SPFs isn’t totally a fool’s errand, as long as you don’t expect miracles.
Higher than SPF 50 does not decrease the amount you need to apply, the frequency of reapplication, or give you carte blanche to stay out all day without shade or cover. Kasteler states that he finds 30-50 adequate for UVB (or sunburn) protection, while he recommends higher SPF broad spectrum to target UVA (or wrinkle) protection.
What you need to know about sprays.
Aerosol spray sunscreens are incredibly popular because they’re so easy to apply, but it is essential that you apply them correctly. It has been reported that factors such as wind, the distance from the body, the angle, and the continuity of the spray all contribute to effectiveness. There is even a call from the dermatology community to further educate consumers on how to properly use spray sunscreen.
Dunbar says he loves the convenience of sprays, especially when it comes to application on kids, but he reminds users that it is imperative to rub it in after spraying to get maximum protection.
There is concern at the EWG over inhalation of chemicals during application of spray sunscreens, and the FDA cautions against using spray sunscreen directly on the face and in unventilated areas. Both organizations emphasize the importance of ensuring that you use an adequate amount, so be sure you’re fully coating your skin before rubbing it in.
How sunscreen can affect the environment.
When it comes to sunscreen, research shows that our choices affect more than just us—the chemicals we bring into the water on our skin impact the marine environment as well. Craig Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, explains that oxybenzone and octinoxate, two of the most frequently used compounds in chemical sunscreens, cause development deformities, damage DNA, and are endocrine disruptors to corals, reef fish, sea urchins, shrimp, crabs, and other invertebrates found in marine environments.
Effects have been measured on coral in high-tourist areas in Hawaii and the Caribbean. Downs notes that the chemicals can lead to coral bleaching (when coral expels the algae living in their tissues, turning the coral white) and can also prevent new corals and organisms from repopulating the reef, leading to a slow decay. He lists octisalate, homosalate, Tinosorb S, and parabens as other ingredients to look out for and avoid.
In fact, Hawaii is the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate, which will take effect in 2021. Ku’ulei Rodgers, Ph.D., faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, notes that it is good to take a precautionary approach, not just for the coral reefs, but also because sunscreen is so rapidly absorbed through human skin.
Here are our recommendations for the best sunscreens.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to find what works for you. Our recommendations are physical sunscreens because they’re what we know to be best for marine environments (plus, no waiting period).
We used reports from the EWG, as well as our own experience and recommendations from some of our favorite M.D.s.
Here’s a quick list of sunscreens we think you should try:
For an on-the-go option that can be worn under makeup (or even replace it), this stick is where it’s at. With a host of skin-nourishing ingredients like hemp seed and sunflower oils, this sunscreen will enrich your skin as it protects it. The tint helps balance the whiteness of the zinc oxide but might be a tad dark for the very fair, so test it out. And be sure to give your skin 15-20 minutes to absorb the sunscreen before applying makeup on top of it!
Excellent sun protection with low health risks—yes, please. With a matte finish and a tint light enough to be friendly to folks who never wear makeup, this sunscreen goes on smooth and evens the skin tone.
It does contain dimethicone, a common ingredient found in cosmetics that research has shown to be safe in proper concentrations. The problem is that the same properties that help dimethicone make cosmetics spreadable and smooth can also trap bacteria to irritate skin and potentially cause acne, so be sure to thoroughly wash your face to clear away impurities at the end of the day (and if you’re super acne-prone, this one may not be your best bet).
For an un-tinted option, check out this SPF 30 moisturizer. This one also contains dimethicone, but the formula is mattifying and oil-reducing, so if you struggle with oily skin, it’s potentially a good option. Less heavy than many sunscreens, it should protect your skin from damage, be light enough for makeup to sit on smoothly, and help reduce shine.
Kasteler recommends Neutrogena as a reliable go-to for a wide variety of skin types. We like the physical zinc option in Dry-Touch because of its safety, smooth application, and budget-friendly price. It comes in a variety of SPFs, but 50 is always going to top our list.
As with most mineral sunscreens, it will come on white and be a bit thick in texture, but give it 15 minutes or so to settle in. Bonus: If you’re using it on your face, the Dry-Touch matte finish reacts well as a primer under makeup.
This one gets a thumbs-up rating on ingredient safety and has a light vanilla scent to boot. It rubs on thick, and you have to work to spread it over your skin, but on the upside, this makes it easy to identify missed spots when applying. The $25 price tag might look a bit steep at first, but the stick minimizes waste—and it doesn’t budge in the water.
For a water-resistant option, this unscented sport sunscreen is a winner. It does contain benzyl alcohol and phenoxyethanol, ingredients which are approved for use in low concentrations, but that may irritate skin after extended use. This sunscreen may not be the best option for daily use but could be a good choice for days you expect to sweat a lot. Plus, Alba Botanica emphasizes its commitment to the environment, and this product is reef-friendly.
Just because it has “Baby” in the name doesn’t mean adults can’t use it too! This mineral sunscreen is gentle on skin, provides excellent protection, and is both affordable and widely available. It is a thick physical blocker, so be ready to put a little elbow grease into rubbing it into your skin.
Don’t forget your lips! Most sunscreens don’t taste great, so consider grabbing a stick of sunscreen lip balm to protect your pucker from the sun. Badger is reef-friendly, moisturizing, and affordable.
Sunscreen should be used in your everyday routine to keep your skin and self healthy and happy. Don’t save it for summer—you should really be wearing sunscreen all year round, rain or shine.
When you’re spending a lot of time outside, you should also have a protection plan to combat UV damage, and sunscreen is only part of that. Sunscreen alone cannot prevent skin cancer—wearing protective clothing, finding (or creating) shade, and checking the UV index to avoid overexposure are all key elements to maintaining your skin health in a time when melanoma rates are increasing across the board.