The sunscreen aisle at any big-box retailer can be overwhelming, and the shopping experience at online stores is no better. There are lotions, creams, and sprays. There are packages that harken back to childhood beach trips, and there are logos that could be mistaken for some super serum of the future. The only obvious constant? Whatever bottle makes the cart will cost so much that a sunburn might seem like a worthwhile tradeoff to avoid the trouble. Almost.
Dermatologists emphasize that the best sunscreen on the market is the sunscreen someone will wear regularly and reapply consistently. It could be anything from classic Coppertone to sleek Supergoop.
Some consumers may want to be choosier, especially since a recent report raised concerns over the safety of sunscreen ingredients. At the end of May, pharmaceutical watchdog Valisure reported it found 78 sunscreen and after-sun products that were contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen associated with blood cancers. The organization published a list of contaminated products, and it included brands such as Aveeno, Banana Boat, CVS Health, Neutragena, Sun Bum, Target’s Up & Up, and Walgreens.
But shoppers need not be too worried by this news, according to Dr. Jennifer Caudill, a board-certified dermatologist in Clarkston, Michigan. “Yes, this contaminant came out,” Caudill told me in an interview. “It was a mistake. They identified it.” A number of the contaminated products were taken off the shelves, and anyone who bought one of the listed brands can check the published lot numbers and discard anything that matches up. (What’s more, some dermatologists debate the validity of the study, as reported by the Washington Post.)
When women find themselves staring down crowded shelves of sunscreen this summer, they can rest in the knowledge that what’s there is by and large safe and protective. Still, a few pointers from dermatologists will equip shoppers with information on how to choose the best sunscreen for their skin.
Consider mineral over chemical
Chemical sunscreens are more likely to irritate the skin. These products feature active ingredients such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, which diffuse UV rays when they hit the screen. “These are the ingredients people are allergic to,” Caudill said.
“We really want people to shift to mineral-based sunscreens,” Caudill said. Mineral sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and reflect sunlight. They feature titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or a combination of the two. These ingredients are easier on skin, said Dr. Sonya Kenkare, a board-certified dermatologist in Chicago and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. “If you have sensitive skin and you’re looking for something easy to tolerate, I recommend mineral sunscreen,” she said.
Mineral sunscreens have a bad reputation, however. “Way back in the 1980s, those were the ones that left big white patches on people,” Caudill said. “They have improved substantially over time.” Shoppers can now buy mineral sunscreens as powders, creams, and sprays.
And they no longer leave users looking like ghosts—the particles are smaller now, so the distinctive white film lasts minutes, not hours. Kenkare added that people with deeper skin tones can look for tinted moisturizers with SPF 30 or higher if they dislike the look of mineral sunscreen. Even though its white cast has gotten better, “it can still look odd,” Kenkare said.
Look for SPF 30, at the very least
Mineral or chemical, SPF matters. According to the Food and Drug Administration, SPF measures how much solar energy is required to burn skin protected by sunscreen relative to the amount needed to burn unprotected skin.
“I recommend SPF 30 to anyone with any skin tone,” Kenkare said. “If you put it on in a really thin layer, I would recommend SPF 50, which is what I use.”
Caudill recommends her patients use SPF 50 or higher. “The truth is, none of us, even me, apply sunscreen in the manner it was tested,” Caudill said. When sunscreen is tested, it’s applied in thick layers every two hours. People don’t use sunscreen that way, which means protection wanes outside the laboratory. “Most of us are getting half of the number of protection in the bottle.”
Think about oil-free options
Women with acne—or women shopping for teenagers—may want to reach for oil-free sunscreens.
Many brands make oil-free facial sunscreens. Caudill encourages patients to use this sunscreen on any parts of their bodies with acne. “Let’s say you have acne on your chest or back—use your oil free facial sunscreen for those areas as well,” Caudill said.
Some brands are beginning to make oil-free options outside of facial sunscreens, Caudill noted. Neutrogena’s Clear Body sunscreen has no oil and is billed breakout-free. (This is a chemical sunscreen.)
Make price a factor
Sunscreen isn’t cheap, but shoppers have options. The best news? Bottom shelf sunscreen won’t cost users a burn. You just have to know where to look.
A 10.4 fl oz bottle of SPF 30 mineral sunscreen from Target’s house brand Up & Up costs $9.99. Target also sells a 1.4 fl oz tube of SPF 30 mineral sunscreen from Everyday Humans for $25.49. Along with sunburn protection, it treats buyers’ skin to a dose of rose water, aloe, and vitamin E.
“You can get really inexpensive ones, and you can get the super fancy ones that are really cosmetic,” Caudill said. “But all of them should be approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation.” In those terms, “they are all created equal.”
In many ways, it all comes back down to dermatologists’ general principle about sunscreen: “The best sunscreen is the one you can use,” Caudill said.