How to Find the Best Sunscreen Type for You

SPF is super important, but are you using the most effective types of sunscreen?

In case you haven't yet gotten the memo, wearing sunscreen daily (yes, that's 365 days per year, rain or shine) is undoubtedly the single best thing you can do for both the health and appearance of your skin. It truly is that simple. That being said, the sunscreen space can be somewhat confusing. Mineral or chemical? Spray or lotion? And what do all of those numbers on the bottle mean? We had top dermatologists explain everything there is to know about the different types of sunscreens, and share the most important things to keep in mind when shopping for SPF.

Sunscreens typically fall into one of two categories: chemical or physical.

In one corner, you have chemical sunscreens. These contain ingredients—common ones include oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosolate, and octinoxate—that work by penetrating into the skin. There, they absorb UV rays and convert them into a harmless amount of heat, explains Fatima Fahs, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Michigan and the creator of Dermy Doc Box. (You may have heard some not-so-great things about chemical sunscreens as of late, but we'll get to that in a minute.)

On the other hand, physical or mineral sunscreens rely on, well, minerals—titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—that rest on top of the skin, deflecting the sun's harmful UV rays, explains Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of OptiSkin.

They each have their pros and cons.

"Chemical sunscreens are classically more cosmetically elegant," says Dr. Fahs. They blend into skin well and typically are undetectable on all skin tones, she adds. Because they're being absorbed into the skin, the final formulas are very lightweight, and it's also easier to mix chemical sunscreen ingredients into things such as moisturizer and makeup. The drawback? Chemical sunscreens typically contain more ingredients such as preservatives, dyes, and fragrances, all of which can potentially cause skin irritation, says Dr. Markowitz.

You may have also seen some admittedly scary-sounding headlines about chemical sunscreens, which have come under fire lately. "A recent FDA study looked at four chemical sunscreen ingredients and concluded that absorption of these ingredients into the body supported the need for additional safety data," explains Dr. Fahs. (Some of these ingredients, such as oxybenzone, may alter hormonal and other functions in the human body, adds Dr. Markowitz, hence the cause for concern.)

But there's no need to panic—and there's definitely no need to stop wearing sunscreen. "While the FDA is asking for more data, it does not say that the ingredients are unsafe, and we definitely need more studies to determine if any of this is clinically relevant," says Dr. Fahs. That being said, if this concerns you, then just stick with physical sunscreens. There's also some concern about chemical ingredients being washed into the oceans and damaging coral reefs; Hawaii, for example, has banned the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Physical sunscreens don't have those potential safety concerns—in that same study the FDA deemed both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as both safe and effective—nor any negative impacts on the environment. "They're usually non-comedogenic and tend to be associated with less skin irritation than chemical sunscreens, a good choice for those with acne-prone, oily, or sensitive skin," adds Dr. Markowitz. But they, too, have drawbacks. Mineral sunscreens can often leave a white or gray cast on the skin, especially in skin of color, says Dr. Fahs. Granted, formulations have improved markedly as of late, and tinted mineral sunscreens can help counteract this, though even then the tints don't always match all skin tones, she points out.

Another thing to note: Sometimes, sunscreens will combine both chemical and physical ingredients so that you get the best both of both worlds. "They can work in a synergistic way to create a non-irritating and light sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum coverage and is cosmetically elegant," says Dr. Fahs.

The type of sunscreen product you choose also comes into play.

Even once you've figured out whether you want to go the mineral or physical route, you'll have to choose what format you like (sprays, sticks, creams, etc). Aerosol sprays may be super easy to use, but Dr. Markowtiz warns that their coverage isn't quite as complete as that of what you'd get from a thicker cream or lotion. (Most people simply don't apply enough, nor rub it in well enough to get the amount of protection indicated on the bottle.) Using the right amount is imperative, no matter the type of product you pick.

As a general rule of thumb, for lotions and creams you want about a half teaspoon for your entire face, and a shot glass-worth for your whole body. If you are opting for a spray, make sure your entire body is evenly coated; you should be clearly able to see the sheen from the sunscreen. Oh, and don't forget to reapply: If you're spending time outdoors, even if it's cloudy, reapply your sunscreen every two hours, advises Dr. Fahs.

There are some requirements.

No matter which type of sunscreen you pick, there are a few non-negotiables to look for.

  • The term 'broad-spectrum': This means the sunscreen is protecting you against both UVA rays, which cause signs of aging, and UVB rays, which cause burning.
  • At least SPF 30: Both the American Academy of Dermatology and The Skin Cancer Foundation recommend at least SPF 30 for daily use. When applied properly, SPF 30 protects you from about 97 percent of UVB rays, says Dr. Fahs, who adds that no sunscreen offers 100 percent protection. Hence why it's important to practice other safe sun behaviors and seek out shade, wear a hat, etc. And if you're spending a lot of time outdoors, it's not a bad idea to up your SPF to a 50 or 70, just to be safe.
  • It should be 'water-resistant' if you're going to the beach: You'll see this on the bottle with either a 40-minute or 80-minute claim. This indicates how long the sunscreen will stay on wet skin, explains Dr. Fahs.

TL; DR: The best type of sunscreen for you is one that you like and are actually going to use every single day. As long as it's broad-spectrum with at least SPF 30, whether you go with a mineral or physical formula is totally up to you. Either way, there's no shortage of options out there, so there's absolutely no excuse to skimp on sun protection (sorry!).

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  1. Matta MK, Florian J, Zusterzeel R, et al. Effect of sunscreen application on plasma concentration of sunscreen active ingredients: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2020;323(3):256-267. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.20747

  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem compound summary for CID 4632, Oxybenzone. Date Accessed Nov. 20, 2022.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs. Date Accessed August 28, 2022.

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