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Sunscreen is an essential step to your skincare routine year round—even on cold and cloudy days, UVA and UVB rays can cause sun damage—so it's important to find a formula you like. But if you've ever stared down the huge shelf of sunscreen options at your local drugstore, or clicked through search results online, you know that there is a huge variety of options available. We've done our research and found the best sunscreen formulas on the market to help you keep your skin protected.
Unlike other mineral-based products, this popular sunscreen absorbs well and won't leave a whitish cast on skin. It has a light, citrus scent and its main ingredient is 20 percent zinc oxide. It's also made without a variety of potentially harmful chemicals, including BPA, petroleum, parabens, and oxybenzone. Shoppers who are trying to be socially aware should also know that the company doesn't test on animals and has donated extensively to charities such as the Breast Cancer Fund, Save the Whales, and the Haiti Earthquake Victims Fund.
This made-in-the-USA sunscreen contains 20 percent zinc oxide, and is free of chemicals such as oxybenzone, coal tar, and phthalates. Other ingredients include moisturizers like raspberry seed, aloe vera leaf extract, and marula oil, as well as antioxidants such as grape juice and sunflower shoot extract, which may help reduce signs of aging. Although the texture starts out a bit grainy, it blends in well and has a pleasant, neutral scent.
This featherweight, easily absorbing sunscreen is water-resistant for 80 minutes. Although it does contain some chemical ingredients (the main ones are avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene) it's made without oxybenzone, parabens, and fragrance, and is gentle on sensitive skin. It also contains antioxidants and—for a fancy touch—thermal spring water. If you're acne prone, you'll appreciate that the formula is non-clogging and is good for both your face and your body.
Formulated specifically for the delicate skin on the face, this moisturizing sunscreen is made with a mix of zinc oxide and octinoxate. It also contains the moisturizer hyaluronic acid, a sugar that's found naturally in the skin. The formula comes in a convenient pump dispenser, which makes it easy to apply just the right amount and protects the cream inside from air, sunlight, and germs.
If your skin is reactive, you'll need a formula that's both protective but also non-irritating. This fragrance-free physical blocker from CeraVe is made with a mix of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It also comes with the seal of approval from the National Eczema Foundation, making it ideal for those with sensitive skin, and is free of sulfates and parabens. As the name "CeraVe" suggests, the brand's products are made with ceramides, which are lipid molecules that occur naturally in the skin and help it retain moisture.
If you're ever tried to spread sunscreen lotion on a wiggly kid eager to head outside on a sunny day, you'll especially appreciate a stick product like this one from Babyganics. (Pro tip: If you've got a little one who loves to be independent, let them swipe themselves a few times before you help them finish the job.) The main ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and like other physical blockers, this one is free of chemicals such as PABA, phthalates, and parabens.
Spray sunscreens can save tons of time and hassle, but aerosols get a bad rep for being flammable and potential lung irritants. Enter this non-aerosol SPF 50 spray, which is so water-resistant that it can even be applied to damp skin. The well-designed bottle can be sprayed at any angle (even upside down!) for those hard-to-reach areas. Although the active ingredients include avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene, it doesn't contain oxybenzone, PABA, or synthetic fragrances. In fact, Supergoop! has chosen to make its products European Union (EU) compliant, because the EU has strict guidelines that prohibit the use of more than 1,300 potentially harmful ingredients.
Made with a nearly equal balance of zinc oxide and the chemical ingredient octinoxate, Vanicream's sport formula absorbs easily and doesn't contain dye, fragrance, oxybenzone, oil, or other irritants. The because the formula absorbs into your skin and acts as a chemical barrier, it's fighting UV rays on two fronts, and can even feel a little moisturizing, rather than greasy or oily. Living up to the "sport" part of its name, this product is designed to be water resistant for up to 80 minutes.
Meet the Expert
To help decode some of the confusing language on sunscreen labels, we got some sunscreen shopping and application tips from Dr. Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, FAAD, co-founder of Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut, and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Yale New Haven Hospital.
How to Read a Sunscreen Label
As you're looking at the bottle, keep an eye out for these key terms and ingredients.
Broad spectrum. "This means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and you should choose a product with an SPF of at least 30," says Dr. Mraz Robinson.
Oil free and noncomedogenic. These products are less likely to clog pores. "If you're acne-prone, look for these words," says Dr. Mraz Robinson.
Water-resistant. If you're swimming or planning to spend lots of time sweating outside, you'll need a product that can stand up to H2O.
Oxybenzone. Dr. Mraz Robinson says pregnant women should skip sunscreens with oxybenzone, a chemical that may interfere with the hormone production process and can sometimes cause allergic reactions of the skin.
Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These are the key ingredients in mineral sunscreens, also called physical blockers. "I personally prefer mineral blockers which sit on the skin's surface and rebound the sun's rays. They're tolerated by even the most sensitive skin types and most effective at protection, and because they sit on the outermost layer of your skin to work, they're also the easiest to reapply throughout the day," says Dr. Mraz Robinson.
How to Apply Sunscreen
Here are Dr. Mraz Robinson's key tips for slathering on your product of choice.
Apply 30 minutes before sun exposure. This will give the product plenty of time to soak into the skin.
Chemical sunscreens go on first. "The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, octinoxate and oxybenzone. For these to work they need to be applied directly onto clean skin so they can be absorbed and do their job," says Dr. Mraz Robinson. If you're planning to wear makeup, put that on after you've let your sunscreen sink in.
Sunscreens made with only mineral active ingredients go on last. These need to go on top of products like moisturizer or foundation. "Because they sit on top of the skin and create a physical barrier that reflects the sun’s rays, they need to be the last thing you apply in your skincare routine," says Dr. Mraz Robinson.
Don't forget to reapply. Make sure to reapply your product every two hours, and always after swimming and toweling off.
Supplement with accessories. Don't forget a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, and Dr. Mraz Robinson also likes UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing and products like these towels. "It doesn't replace the use of sunscreen, but it's a great way to add protection especially for hard to reach places," she says.