What Type of Sunscreen Is Best? Experts Explain

SPF is super important, but are you using the most effective sunscreen for your skin?

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. This is doubly important if you use skincare products, like eye cream, that contain retinol which makes the skin more sensitive to UV rays.

That being said, the sunscreen space can be somewhat confusing. Mineral sunscreen 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.

Chemical Sunscreen

In one corner, you have chemical sunscreens. These contain ingredients—common ones include oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, and octinoxate—that work by penetrating 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.


"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 moisturizers and makeup. One of the best affordable skincare brands, Neutrogena, has several different forms of chemical sunscreen. Their Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch formula with SPF 55 is an easy-to-apply daily body sunscreen that's also water resistant.


The drawback? Chemical sunscreens typically contain more ingredients such as preservatives, dyes, and fragrances, all of which can potentially cause skin irritation, says Orit Markowitz, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City and founder of OptiSkin.

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 (or Mineral) Sunscreen

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 Dr. Markowitz.


Physical sunscreens don't have as many potential safety concerns as chemical sunscreen—in that earlier study, the FDA deemed both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as both safe and effective. Not surprisingly, many of the top sunscreens for kids and babies opt for mineral-based active ingredients. They also didn't find 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. La Roche-Posay's Anthelios Mineral Zinc Oxide formula is a great sunscreen for acne-prone skin.


Mineral sunscreens, 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. Nevertheless, there are some tinted sunscreens that are worth trying—La Roche-Posay's comes in a universal tint that suits various skin types.

Another thing to note: Sometimes, sunscreens will combine both chemical and physical ingredients so that you get the best 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. EltaMD UV Daily Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 is a great face sunscreen that perfectly balances chemical and physical active ingredients.

Spray vs. Lotion

Even once you've figured out whether you want to go the chemical 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.

Non-negotiable Requirements

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


When a sunscreen is labeled as "broad-spectrum," it 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

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends 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 50 or 70, just to be safe.

Water-resistant for the Beach

You'll see this water-resistant label on the bottle with either a 40-minute or 80-minute claim. This number indicates how long the sunscreen will stay on wet skin, explains Dr. Fahs.

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 chemical 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.

  3. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs.

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