Sunscreens work by preventing the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin. There are two types of UV radiation to worry about—UVA and UVB. Both types damage the skin and can increase your risk of skin cancer; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the sun causes 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of melanoma.
The first step to choosing the right sunscreen is to understand SPF, or "Sun Protection Factor," which is a rating system used to measure how much UVB rays the sunscreen can block. Contrary to popular belief, SPF 30 is not twice as strong as SPF 15. To get a sense of what the numbers really mean, check out these stats: SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays and SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. Higher SPF ratings offer only a slight improvement; SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of UVB rays, and any number higher than 50 doesn't really mean much.
The New FDA Regulations
In June of 2011, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced new regulations stating that only sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher can claim to lower the risk of cancer. In addition, the FDA has proposed capping the highest SPF value at 50.
While a sunscreen's SPF rating does have meaning, it has nothing to do with the UVA protection it may or may not afford. As of June 2011, all sunscreens must, according to the FDA, be tested for UVA protection. If you see "broad-spectrum" on the label, that will mean that the sunscreen blocks both UVB and UVA rays. The four-star UVA ranking system currently being used on some sunscreen labels will be phased out in coming years to comply with these new FDA regulations.
Finally, to enforce the focus on UVA rays, the FDA has stated that any sunscreen that does not protect against both UVA and UVB rays, and has an SPF of below 15 must now carry a warning label stating: "This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging."
The FDA has been planning these changes to sunscreen rules since 1978; 2011 marks the agency's first new law on sunscreen labeling and marketing in decades.
What's in the Bottle?
Another factor to consider is the two basic categories of sunscreens – mineral-based and chemical-based. To determine what type your sunscreen is, check the active ingredients.
- Mineral-based: Contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide
- Chemical-based: Contain homosalate, octisalate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, or octocrylene.
Some sunscreens may have elements of both. While there are advantages and disadvantages to all of the active ingredients in sunscreen, dermatologist Dr. Jeffrey Benabio told us that oxybenzone should always be avoided. "Oxybenzone might cause skin allergies, affect hormones, and generate free radicals," he says.
No matter which product you end up using, don't forget to reapply: "All sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours when possible," says Dr. Benabio. "And remember that chemical sunscreens need to be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to be effective."
Choosing a sunscreen can be difficult, and may depend on what—or who—you're buying it for. To help, we've looked at the options in a few different categories.
Great Sunscreen for Babies
Infants under 6 months of age have skin too sensitive for sunscreens and should be kept out of the sun. Keep them in the shade; give them a wide brimmed hat or bonnet to cover their faces, necks, and ears; and make sure all of the skin is covered.
Infants older than 6 months should still wear something to keep their face in the shade, but they can start to wear sunscreen as well. "Look for a sunscreen with only zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide," suggests Dr. Benabio. And try a tear-free, fragrance-free formula that won't sting the eyes.
Armada Baby (SPF 50) offers excellent UVA and UVB protection in an all-natural, hypoallergenic formula that is extremely gentle—tender enough even for baby's skin. Our test baby loved it. It's also a good option for adults with very sensitive skin.
Special Mention: Specialized baby sunscreens tend to be pricey, but Blue Lizard "Baby Lizard" (SPF 30+) is a good option at a lower price point and can be found at your local pharmacy.
Best Sunscreen for Kids
Kids are active and finicky, so what they need is a long-acting, no-fuss sunscreen that won't wear off quickly and won't get in their eyes while they play. Using a waterproof sunscreen is important because, let's face it, your kids are going to get wet at some point.
Coppertone Kids Pure and Simple (SPF 50) is a tear-free formula that is waterproof and free of all oils, fragrances, and dyes. It's utilizes the safest chemicals available and a gentle mineral formula to provide great UVA and UVB protection. It also rubs in easily without leaving too much residue, so you can get it on your child before he or she squirms out of your grip.
Great Sunscreen for Acne-Prone Skin
If you have the type of skin that requires special attention to prevent acne, you may be wary of putting more oily gunk on your face. Dr. Benabio suggests looking for a chemical-based sunscreen, as mineral-based ones can clog your pores. If you do have special skin concerns, always consult your dermatologist before trying out these products.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios (SPF 40) is a great product for those with oily or acne-prone skin. It utilizes a new and proprietary ingredient called mexoryl sx (also known as ecampsule) that provides the best possible (and most photo-stable) UVA protection without clogging pores or causing breakouts. This technology has been available in Europe for years but was only recently approved in the United States.
Special Mention: For acne-prone skin, a good strategy is to use daily moisturizers with sun protection built in. Dr. Benabio suggests Olay Complete All Day Moisture Cream for Sensitive Skin, SPF 15, which is 100 percent oil-free, non-comodogenic, and provides good UVB and UVA protection for a fraction of the cost of a high-end sunscreen.
Best Sunscreen for an Active Lifestyle
If you're going to be running, hiking, shooting hoops, or playing any other outdoor sport, you'll need a sunscreen that is lightweight, durable, and water resistant. You don't want to work up a good sweat that will wash away your protection. Be aware that, as of June 2011, the FDA forbids sunscreens to make marketing claims of "waterproof" and "sweatproof." According to the FDA, these claims are "exaggerations of performance." Nevertheless, there are some sunscreen formulations that are better for active lifestyles—they'll now be more accurately labeled "water-resistant" instead of "waterproof."
Beyond Coastal Active (SPF 30) goes on fast and dry. It's comfortable and nonobtrusive, and it is exceptionally sweat-resistant. (It'll hold up to even the most extreme athletics). And unlike other sport formulas on the market, Beyond Coastal uses all-natural, skin-safe ingredients and doesn't contain the dangerous chemical oxybenzone.
Special Mention: Swimmers, sailors, and others who spend lots of time in or around the water may want to consider All Terrain AquaSport (SPF 15), which is specially formulated for water sports. It's extremely water-resistant, won't break down, and is completely natural and safe for sensitive skin. Get the spray bottle for easier application.
Great Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin
If you've had a hard time in the past with sunscreens or your skin typically responds poorly to beauty or skin care products, you should look for something chemical- and fragrance-free.
Mychelle Sun Shield (SPF 28) is an all-natural, highly effective mineral-based sunscreen that contains organic aloe and other ingredients to moisturize and soothe the skin. Its formula also includes antioxidants that can keep the skin looking and feeling fresh. And it feels nice on your skin. "It didn't feel greasy or oily, which made it great for a face sunscreen," says our tester.
Special Mention: A more affordable option is Coppertone Sensitive Skin (SPF 50), which has a fragrance- and oil-free formula that is ideal for nearly all skin types. Our tester thought it went on light and didn't feel greasy or sticky. It offers great, long-lasting UVA and UVB protection.
Great Sunscreen to Combat Aging
In many ways, sunscreen is already the best anti-aging beauty product. By blocking UV rays, you'll keep your skin looking younger longer. But there are some specialty products that combine anti-aging ingredients with sunscreens in one package.
While claims to anti-aging are often a little dubious, Ocean Potion Anti-Aging (SPF 30) does contain antioxidants like Vitamin C, tocopheryl acetate, and algae extract that neutralize free radicals in skin cells, leaving your skin feeling and looking fresh. Despite its natural sounding name, Ocean Potion is a chemical-based product, but it does not contain oxybenzone.
Best Sunscreen to Keep in Your Pocket
Protecting yourself from UV rays is one the most important steps you can take to keep your skin healthy. So why not make it even easier on yourself? Carry these affordable, all-around effective skin protectors wherever you go this summer.
California Baby Sunblock Stick-No Fragrance (SPF 30+) is the Environmental Working Group's top-rated sunscreen. It has no chemicals, fragrances, or other unnatural agents, and it has a stable formula that provides long-lasting UVA and UVB protection. It also comes in a convenient 0.5 ounce stick that'll fit in your purse, gym bag, or pocket and applies without the mess of a lotion or spray. So it's easy to use wherever you go this summer.
Special Mention: Beyond Coastal Lip and Face Screen (SPF 30) is an all-natural mineral-based sunscreen that is free of fragrance, oil, and parabens. It also contains natural antioxidants and vitamins to hydrate and repair the skin. It comes in a tough, compact tin that fits in your pocket and will withstand hard falls and jostling. It allows for quick application to your face during any outdoor adventure, especially ones like sailing or snowboarding, where you'll be getting glare in your face all day.