Sunscreen is critical for maintaining youthful, healthy skin.
Protecting your skin from the sun is essential, and not just to avoid sunburn. Damage to skin from sunlight can cause skin cancer, and it’s the primary cause of aging-related wrinkles.
These should be enough reasons to add sunscreen to your daily regime if you live in sunny areas.
Which sunscreen should you use?
The number of sunscreen options are overwhelming, and there is a lot of controversy over the safety of some sunscreen ingredients. In response, our researchers have combed through them to come up with the ten best sunscreens you can use to protect your skin from damaging sunlight.
1. Badger Broad Spectrum
Badger Broad Spectrum is a strong, thick, purely zinc oxide based sunscreen. It has no synthetic ingredients; the zinc oxide is carried purely in natural oils and extracts like beeswax and sunflower seed oil.
This is sure to make it a favorite among people looking to avoid artificial ingredients wherever possible, as well as with parents of small children.
The only downside is that the high zinc oxide content will definitely leave a whitish sheen on your face. That’s the price to pay for an all-natural sunscreen, though.
2. Babyganics Mineral-based Sunscreen
When choosing a sunscreen for children and infants you want to be especially vigilant for chemical additives that aren’t necessary, since children and infants are much more sensitive to toxic compounds if they are exposed.
Babyganics uses octisalate, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide to block UV radiation instead of the oxybenzone used in standard sunscreens. It also replaces many of the standard petroleum-based oils and compounds with plant seed derived oils, like jojoba seed oil and coconut oil.
These choices make it a winner for parents and for anyone who wants their sunscreen to be as natural as possible.
3. Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen
This sunscreen is great if you have sensitive skin or if you hate fragrances. It’s very simple and straightforward; it uses the mineral agents zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to block the harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and it has no perfumes or fragrances added.
It isn’t the strongest candidate when it comes to water resistance, but if you are just spending the day outside, it’s a great option.
4. CeraVe AM Moisturizing Facial Lotion
CeraVe,well known for its moisturizing products, branches out into sunscreen in fine form with their AM moisturizing lotion. As you’d expect with a Cerave product, this product is a moisturizer first, and a sunscreen second.
It isn’t a top pick for its sun blocking compounds, which are a combination of zinc oxide and salates, but its ability to moisturize while also protecting from the sun.
Users love the long-lasting hydrating effects of its blend of ceramides, so if you need a moisturizer that also has sun protection, this should be your choice.
5. Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sunscreen
Alba Botanica makes a sunscreen that’s something of a cross between a moisturizer, a soothing salve, and a sunscreen. It uses the healing properties of aloe vera, plus the moisturizing effects of shea butter oil and jojoba seed oil in combination with UV-blocking compounds to achieve a water-resistant, long-lasting sun blocking effect.
Alba Botanica would be an excellent choice for an everyday skin moisturizer during the sunny season, when you want to protect your skin from the everyday sun damage that adds up over time, leading to premature skin aging.
6. Australian Gold Botanical Sunscreen
Australian Gold is an herbal and mineral-based sunscreen that uses titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as its sun blocking ingredients. It mixes these with a blend of natural plant seed oils and herbal extracts for a product that’s free of oxybenzone, parabens, and other undesirable chemical additives.
It is naturally scented, so if you are especially sensitive to aromas, it may not be the right choice for you. Australian Gold isn’t all-natural; it still has some synthetic chemicals as part of the formulation to give it the right consistency, but despite this, it’s still a pretty solid choice.
7. Ethical Zinc Sunscreen
Ethical Zinc Sunscreen distinguishes itself by providing a zinc oxide-only sunscreen that’s as simple and natural as possible. While it might not last quite as long as some of its other competitors, it is about as simple and natural as you can get.
It doesn’t have any particularly attractive moisturizers or skin healing agents, but if you have sensitive skin, it’s a safe, solid bet for a reliable sunscreen.
8. Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid Lotion Sunscreen
One of the problems with many sunscreen lotions is that they are fairly thick and have a tendency to clog up your sweat pores if you don’t wash them off.
Neutrogena attempts to solve this problem with a thin, liquid-based sunscreen made for people with a tendency to break out in pimples or cysts when their skin pores get clogged.
It accomplishes this goal, but to do so, it uses sun blocking compounds like oxybenzone, which have some safety concerns surrounding them. While it might be a potential option if other sunscreens give you breakouts, the high content of petroleum based compounds and the oxybenzone prevents it from becoming a top pick.
9. Maui Sun Sunscreen
Maui Sun makes a pretty basic sunscreen that is water resistant and has several natural ingredients that are nice to see, like cocoa butter, shea butter, and coconut oil.
It avoids oxybenzone, but only does so by the substitution of a chemically similar compound, avobenzone. This might be oxybenzone free in principle, but whether the closely related chemical cousin is any better is definitely up for debate. This prevents it from moving any higher in the rankings.
10. Beyond Coastal Active Sunscreen
Beyond Coastal Active Sunscreen is another product that does some chemical sleight of hand to advertise itself as oxybenzone-free but accomplishes this by using avobenzone instead.
It tosses in a few antioxidants like vitamin B5 and green tea extract, but it’s hard to tell whether this would have any real effect, since its overall skin healing properties are subpar.
One thing it does have going for it is that it is highly water resistant, so if you don’t mind the avobenzone, it’s very resistant to sweat and ocean water and thus works well for very active people.
Who should buy sunscreen?
Pretty much everyone should have sunscreen. Even if you don’t spend that much time outside, a sunscreen is still an important part of an overall skincare routine, because sun damage is the single leading factor when it comes to skin wrinkles and aging.
And of course, if you do spend a lot of time outside, you absolutely need a sunscreen to protect yourself from sunburn and skin cancer.
Most people think about sunscreen as something they only use when going to the beach or spending all day out in the sun. But, if you want to maintain healthy skin as you get older, sunscreen (especially on your face) should be a part of your everyday routine.
Skincare experts recommend incorporating sunscreen into your morning routine as the last component of your cosmetic products.
A typical morning routine might involve washing your face, applying a moisturizer, putting on any makeup or cosmetics, and finally, using a sunscreen.
You might want to get separate sunscreen products for your face and for the rest of your body: facial sunscreens tend to use chemical sunblocking compounds to eliminate streaks or a white-ish cast over your face.
However, as we’ll soon see, physical sunscreens that are based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide may be more desirable for your chest, back, arms, and legs.
How we ranked
Our choice of sunscreens for our rankings was based on balancing out two potentially competing interests: having an effective sunscreen that prevents photoaging and skin cancer without being greasy or leaving a whitish cast over your face, but that also avoids potentially harmful or undesirable ingredients.
There’s increasing recognition that some ingredients in chemical sunscreens (as opposed to physical sunscreens, which are based on zinc or titanium oxides), particularly oxybenzone but also some of its related chemical cousins, like avobenzone, could have undesirable biological properties.
On the other hand, these chemical sunscreens have some very desirable properties, like being easy to apply, non-greasy, and not leaving any white streaks or tinting your skin tone.
To balance out these criteria, our first requirement was that sunscreens in our rankings not contain any oxybenzone.
This chemical sunscreen agent has the most scientific evidence suggesting that it may interact with hormones in your body, and there are plenty of great products out there (even chemical sunscreens) that do not contain oxybenzone.
Next up, we considered efficacy. We only ranked products that had an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of at least 30.
While there are plenty of cosmetic products and even lip balms that add enough sun blocking agents to get an SPF rating of 15 or 20, if you really want multi-hour protection from intense or direct sunlight, you want an SPF rating of 30 or higher.
That SPF level is also in keeping with what the Skin Cancer Foundation’s recommendations on sunscreen products (1).
Having ruled out oxybenzone-containing products and restricting our rankings only to powerful and effective sunscreens, we then turned our attention to the active ingredients in sunscreens.
Broadly, there are two categories of sun blocking compounds: physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.
A physical sunscreen uses very small particles of either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide that act essentially like a paint—they physically cover your skin and block ultraviolet light from reaching it at full strength.
As a result, some physical sunscreens have a tendency to leave a white-ish cast over your skin after you apply them, though modern chemical engineering technology has enabled micro-sized particles that do not cause the same kind of white streaks and pale white films that first-generation sunscreens caused.
Then, there are chemical sunscreens. These use molecules that are specifically engineered to absorb ultraviolet light. Since they do not physically block ultraviolet light, they are completely transparent after being rubbed in, which makes them great for use alongside cosmetics.
These chemical sunscreens are the category of ingredients that some researchers have expressed concerns about, as some research suggests that they could disrupt the function of your body’s hormones.
Because of this distinction, we evaluated physical and chemical sunscreens separately. Due to better knowledge regarding safety, physical sunscreens ended up higher in our rankings than chemical sunscreens, but we did not totally rule out products that contained ingredients like avobenzone.
Our final rankings have everything you need to protect yourself from the sun, whether it’s a face moisturizer that incorporates sunscreen, or a physical sunscreen that will last for hours when you are at the beach.
Protecting your skin from sunlight with a sunscreen isn’t just for stopping sunburn. Skin damage from sunlight is also the primary cause of skin aging, further, it’s the primary cause of skin cancer.
There is good evidence that the right sunscreen can help avoid all three of these negative effects.
The obvious benefit of sunscreen is that it helps you avoid sunburn, which is painful and irritating. But perhaps more important is its ability to protect your skin against aging and help you reduce your risk of skin cancer.
Sunscreen can help prevent skin aging. On the aging front, there is good evidence that one of the main causes of skin aging is accumulated damage from exposure to the sun. That’s why many sunscreens are blasted with free radical fighters like green tea extract, aloe vera and coconut oil.
According to a scientific paper published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, exposure to sunlight damages several aspects of skin, especially the elastic connective tissue (2).
These compounds are what gives skin its stretchiness and suppleness, and exposure to excessive sunlight causes degradation and staining. This, in part, is what causes the discolored spots that characterize aged skin that usually have to be treated with a wrinkle cream or other anti-aging treatment.
A direct, randomized clinical control trial in Australia demonstrated the effects of sunscreen use on skin aging. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine describes the experiment: over 900 healthy adults in Australia were assigned to either daily use of sunscreen or “discretionary” use of sunscreen (meaning the subjects decided when to use sunscreen based on their daily activities).
After 4.5 years, the researchers found that the group that had been assigned to use sunscreen on a daily basis had significantly less skin aging when compared to those who had used sunscreen at their own discretion (3). This makes a strong case for applying a daily moisturizer to protect your skin and prolong its health.
Sunscreen can prevent skin cancer. Research also indicates that there is a strong connection between tendency to use sunscreen and avoidance of certain types of skin cancer. A study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers, and Prevention found that regular use of sunscreen reduced the risk of squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, by almost 50% (4).
Other research found that regular sunscreen use during childhood could potentially reduce the risk of squamous cell and basal cell carcinoma by up to 80% (5). Both studies concluded that by reducing the amount of ultraviolet light that reached the skin cells, sunscreen reduces the damage to your skin’s DNA, which in turn reduces the risk for skin cancer.
Physical sunscreens have a better-understood safety profile than chemical sunscreens. Some of the first sunscreens on the market were based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are white powders that physically block sunscreen like a paint—indeed, both of these chemicals are used, albeit in much larger particle sizes, in actual paint.
These “physical” sunscreens were great, but they had one big problem: they left your skin looking pale as a ghost. That led to the development of chemical sunscreens, which take advantage of specific molecular structures to absorb ultraviolet light.
These include oxybenzone, octocrylene, avobenzone, and ecamsule. While these compounds do prevent sun damage effectively, their safety has not been formally reviewed with the same rigor that an over-the-counter medication would get today—they were developed before the Food and Drug Administration had developed safety guidelines for cosmetics.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, because of their other applications, have been studied intensely and are recognized as safe ingredients in cosmetic products by the FDA.
Recent research suggests that sunscreen manufacturers may need to carry out more rigorous safety testing on chemical sunscreen ingredients: a paper published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that all four of the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed through the skin in significant amounts, even when used as directed (6).
While this study did not determine whether these sunscreen ingredients caused any biological harm, the findings are likely to lead to more safety testing of these ingredients by the FDA.
Importantly, the authors of this study emphasized that their findings should not be construed to mean that you should avoid sunscreen. If you’re worried about the potential hormonal effects of chemical sunscreens, you can always use a physical sunscreen instead.
Sunscreen is widely used, so there are few, if any, common side effects. However, there is mounting concern over one particular ingredient in many popular sunscreens called oxybenzone.
Oxybenzone is a synthetic compound that blocks ultraviolet radiation and is also very translucent, making it an attractive ingredient for sunscreen, but several scientific studies have highlighted its potential to disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking hormones in your body.
A paper published in 2017 in the journal Cosmetic Dermatology by Joseph C. DiNardo and Craig A. Downs discusses the potential problems with oxybenzone (6).
According to the authors, the chemical has been linked to disruptions of the hormonal system in lab animals, as well as contact dermatitis in humans–basically, breaking out in a rash once the sunscreen has been applied.
More troubling is the finding that a large proportion of the applied dose of a sunscreen is absorbed through your skin, metabolized, and passed out of your body in your urine. This was the conclusion of a study published in 2004 by researchers at the University of Manitoba in Canada (7).
They found that up to one percent of the total amount of oxybenzone applied to the skin (in the form of a standard sunscreen) is metabolized and excreted through urine, as judged from analytical chemistry analysis of the urine of human subjects who had a standardized amount of sunscreen applied to their skin.
Because of the potential negative side effects–even though they are still speculative and not proven–it’s probably better to avoid oxybenzone, especially in a daily-use sunscreen.
A standard moisturizers with sunscreen included will last you a good part of the day, assuming you are not exercising, swimming, or otherwise exposing yourself to water that could wash away the sunscreen.
If you will, you should apply a water-resistant sunscreen, and re-apply it every hour or so while you are in the sun. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside, since it takes a while for your skin to absorb sunscreen (8).
Q: How do sunscreens work?
A: Sunscreen works through one of two methods: either through physically blocking sunscreen with a metal oxide, such as titanium dioxide, or by absorbing ultraviolet light using chemicals with special molecular structures, like avobenzone.
Either way, the result is the same: ultraviolet light that would otherwise burn your skin and damage your DNA is absorbed or blocked, protecting your skin from sunburn and photoaging.
Since sunscreens sit on top of your skin, their concentration gradually decreases as you sweat or swim in water, so sunscreen needs to be reapplied every few hours when you’re outside.
Q: What sunscreens are safe?
A: To be clear, there are no sunscreen ingredients that are definitively known to be unsafe, and the thing that all sunscreens protect against (ultraviolet light) is indisputably known to cause cancer.
Still, some researchers have expressed concerns about certain chemical sunscreen ingredients, like oxybenzone. Some laboratory research has found that these chemical sunscreens could disrupt sex hormones, at least in animal models and in cells on Petri dishes.
Advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group have pushed for sunscreen manufacturers to either phase or conduct more rigorous safety testing on these ingredients, especially considering that other sunscreen ingredients, like those used in physical sunscreens, are known to be both safe and effective.
If you want to avoid any potential problems with chemical sunscreen ingredients, stuck to sunscreens that only use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide: these physical sunscreens block ultraviolet light and are recognized as safe by the FDA.
Q: What is the best sunscreen ingredients?
A: “Best” depends on what you are looking for—if your criteria is “safe and effective,” the best ingredients are definitely titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
These ingredients are safe enough to be used in food and supplements—titanium dioxide, for example, is used to make the “m” on M&Ms candy, and zinc oxide is commonly used as a zinc supplement.
Thanks to modern materials technology, these physical sunscreens no longer leave white streaks or a harsh pale cast across your skin.
However, if your requirements for a sunscreen ingredient is to be as non-greasy and clear as possible, a chemical sunscreen like avobenzone might be preferable, as it will work better in conjunction with makeup.
Q: What sunscreens do dermatologists recommend?
A: Dermatologists are mostly concerned with the potency of a sunscreen, so dermatological sunscreen recommendations are oriented around an SPF rating.
The Skin Cancer Foundation, for example, recommends an SPF rating of at least 15 for ordinary use, and an SPF rating of at least 30 for extended outdoor use of a sunscreen (9). The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends a minimum of SPF 30 (10).
We followed this more stringent requirement in our product rankings; all of the sunscreens on our list are SPF 30 or greater.
Q: What kind of sunscreen should you use for your face?
A: When using sunscreen on your face, you have a lot of options. Many people put a normal sunscreen on as the last piece of their morning skin care routine, after using a face wash and face moisturizer.
There are also moisturizers that incorporate sunscreen. You can also use BB cream, which is a combination of makeup foundation, sunscreen, and moisturizer.
Regardless of the option, you should definitely use some sort of sun protection on your skin, as sun damage is the biggest cause of aging and wrinkles on your face.
Q: What kind of sunscreen is best for babies?
A: According to the Mayo Clinic, sunscreen is safe to use on babies when they are six months or older (11). You’ll want to use a sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 30, and if you are particularly worried about the safety of sunscreen ingredients, use a physical sunscreen that is based on titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as opposed to a chemical sunscreen.
While the risks of chemical sunscreen have not been proven, it’s not a bad idea to play it safe when it comes to potential endocrine disruptors and children.
Q: What does SPF mean?
A: SPF stands for “sun protection factor,” and it is related to a sunscreen’s ability to block a certain intensity of rays from the sun. Though an SPF rating of 30 is often interpreted to mean that you can stay in the sun 30 times longer without getting burned, that’s not quite accurate.
According to the FDA, it actually means that you can absorb 30 times as much energy before getting burned. The energy intensity of sunlight can be many times higher at mid-day than it is in the morning, for example (12).
It’s important to realize that SPF is a variable that can be compared across different sunscreens, not across different people.
For example, if you have pale skin, you are likely to burn much quicker than a friend with darker skin, even if you both put on the same amount of SPF 30 sunscreen. It is true, however, that an SPF 30 sunscreen will absorb twice as much solar radiation as an SPF 15 sunscreen.
Q: What is mineral sunscreen?
A: Mineral sunscreen is another term for a physical sunscreen that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
The term is derived from the fact that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are minerals that are mined from the earth, as opposed to the lab-synthesized organic chemicals used in chemical sunscreens.
Mineral sunscreens are popular among health-conscious consumers, because they are known to be based on safe ingredients that have undergone rigorous safety screening.
When properly selected, the right sunscreen can protect your skin from premature aging, sunburn, and even skin cancer. Different types of sunscreen are appropriate in different settings, but in general, most people will want some type of daily moisturizing lotion that incorporates sunscreen alongside moisturizers that keep your skin healthy.
For long days out in the sun, especially if you will be sweating a lot or going in the water, you will also want a sunscreen that is water-resistant. Though the scientific research is not conclusive, it’s probably best to avoid sunscreens that use oxybenzone to block the sun’s rays, because of potential safety concerns.
Regular use of sunscreen can help you prevent sunburn, halt skin aging, and even reduce your risk of skin cancer, so whether you should get yourself sunscreen is an easy decision.
For BodyNutrition‘s #1 sunscreen recommendation, click here.