What, exactly, is the right sunscreen for you?

Choosing the right sunscreen and knowing how to use it could save your life.  If you are like most women, you know the basics about sunscreen: SPF, how much to use (a shot glass for full body coverage), apply to your ears, etc.  I was one of those people.  But when I went deeper into the research, I was shocked at how little I really knew.  And how lax I had become in using sunscreen as I’ve gotten older.

Can sunscreen make a difference at my age?

By the time we reach our 60s, most of us have some skin discolorations, brown marks and wrinkles from spending time in the sun.  And who didn’t get one of those painful, full-body sunburns when we were young, the ones that turned our skin lobster-red and sore for days?  Perhaps you are thinking that you already have all the damage you are going to get from the sun.  And that there is nothing we can do now to repair sun damage we experienced as children and young adults.

The reason this is such an important topic for our age group is that we are still at considerable risk for skin cancer.  According to the American Cancer Society, the average age for diagnosis of skin cancer is 63, although more young people are getting it as well.  In the fight against skin cancer, sunscreen is one of the most important tools you can use to help protect yourself against the sun.

What you absolutely need to know about SPF

In 1962, Franz Greiter—the same chemist who introduced modern sunscreen in the ‘40s—introduced the Skin Protection Factor (SPF) rating system, now the worldwide standard for measuring a sunscreen’s effectiveness. With SPF being the key factor in choosing a sunscreen, it is important to understand what it says about a product.

How does the SPF translate into the amount of time you can expect a sunscreen to protect your skin? First, determine how long it takes your skin to burn without protection (when your skin turns red, it is burned). For most people, that length of time is about 20 to 30 minutes.  If you apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 15, you would multiply 30 (the length of time) by the 15 (the SPF).  That means that you’re technically protected for 450 minutes, or 7.5 hours.  Since most don’t spend that much time in the sun, it would be easy to assume that SPF 15 sunscreen is enough protection for a day at the beach. Alas, making sure your skin is protected from the sun is not that simple. Here’s where it gets complicated.

Frequency + amount=effective sun protection

If you take away nothing more from this article than the two key terms—frequency and amount—your time will have been well spent.  While the SPF concept works perfectly in the lab, it’s not the same as spending time outdoors in the sun. On a sunny day at the beach, sunscreen breaks down and wears off.  The culprits? Friction, swimming, sweating, and mixing with your skin’s natural oils.  As such, the key to adequate protection from the sun—even more than the SPF factor—is how frequently you apply it and the amount that you use. This is the one area where even the most diligent are likely to fall short. 

  • Frequency: Most sites, including that of the American Academy of Dermatology, recommend applying sunscreen every two hours or as soon as possible after swimming or working up a sweat.  They also suggest asking yourself, “‘Will my face, ears, arms or hands be covered by clothing?’ If not, apply sunscreen.”
  • Amount: It’s that shot glass full we’ve known about for years. But most people, according to the AAD, “only apply 25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.”

While it’s not easy to take a break every two hours to generously reapply sunscreen, this is the only way to effectively protect yourself from the sun.  And, you will still need to apply sunscreen if you are under an umbrella or wearing a wide-brimmed hat.  The Skin Cancer Foundation maintains that “No single method of sun defence can protect you perfectly.  Sunscreen is just one vital part of a strategy that should also include seeking shade and covering up with clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses”.

The inside track on UVA and UVB rays

The United States Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer have declared ultra violet (UV) radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, to be a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays that can reach the earth: UVA and UVB.  What distinguishes them?

UVA rays:

  • Cause wrinkles and age spots
  • Can pass through glass
  • Penetrate deep into the dermis, the skin’s thickest layer
  • Can suppress the immune system
  • 500 times more prevalent in sunlight than UVB rays
  • More difficult to block with chemical sunscreen products.

UVB rays:

  • A sunscreen’s SPF typically refers to the amount of UVB protection it offers
  • Play a key role in developing skin cancer
  • Primary cause of sunburn
  • Are blocked by window glass
  • Usually burn the superficial layers of the skin
  • More effectively blocked with chemical sunscreen products.

Is higher SPF better?

The purpose of SPF is to protect you against the sun’s UV rays.  Technically, the higher the SPF, the more protection you’ll enjoy, although, as you can see from the chart below, the returns diminish greatly after a certain point.  Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to block out 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays.


The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that the biggest drawback of the higher SPF numbers is that they impart a false sense of security. They emphasize that protection from high-number SPFs lasts the same length of time as low-number SPFs.  In other words, a higher SPF does not mean extra time outdoors without reapplying.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains, “Sunbathers often assume that they get twice as much protection from SPF 100 sunscreen as from SPF 50. In reality, the extra protection is negligible.” In addition, the FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50+, calling higher SPF values “inherently misleading.” At the time we went to press, no regulation has been issued.

Chemical, mineral and physical sunscreens

You may have heard sunscreens described as being physical, chemical or mineral sunscreens.  Mineral and physical sunscreens refer to the same product while chemical sunscreens have different properties.  When you go to the drugstore to buy sunscreen, the vast majority of products are chemical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens

A quick review of the basic characteristics of chemical sunscreens:

  • Contain chemical ingredients, such as octylcrylene, oxybenzone, and octinoxate, among others
  • Work by absorbing the sun’s rays into the skin and bloodstream and changing the electromagnetic radiation effect
  • Light, easy to find, easy to apply and don’t leave a white cast on the skin—more aesthetically appealing
  • Can become unstable within an hour so must be reapplied diligently
  • Tend to be irritating due to chemical content—higher SPF values increase the likelihood of irritants
  • May also contain some of the ingredients found in mineral/physical sunscreens.

Mineral/Physical sunscreens

The key attributes of mineral or physical sunscreens:

  • Contain natural ingredients such as zinc oxide (main ingredient in diaper rash cream) and titanium dioxide
  • Use physical filters to block the sun’s rays
  • Thicker than chemical sunscreens, they are not as easy to apply
  • Tend to leave a white cast
  • Don’t break down or become unstable
  • Protect against the entire UVA and UVB spectrum as they block out the sun’s rays
  • Don’t contain chemicals.

Chemical versus mineral sunscreens

There are two schools of thought on the merits of chemical versus mineral sunscreens.  Since chemical sunscreens are easier to apply, easier to find, and more aesthetically pleasing—and since any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen—some dermatologists believe that these factors alone warrant using chemical sunscreens.

Others believe that the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are dangerous—particularly those that are absorbed into the body and can be found in the blood, breast milk, and urine.  If you are diligent about sun protection and willing to put up with some of the drawbacks of mineral sunscreens—such as a slight white cast on the skin and less availability—then they are probably your safer choice.  But again, the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are far less dangerous than sun on unprotected skin.

What your sunscreen absolutely must contain

Regardless of which type of sunscreen you choose, to be effective your sunscreen must state the following on the back of the box or tube:

  • Broad spectrum: means that it offers protection from both UVA and UVB rays
  • An SPF 30 or higher
  • Water resistant: no sunscreen is waterproof, so manufacturers use the term “water resistant”. Water resistant means that SPF is maintained for up to 40 minutes in the water.  And even if you are not going to be swimming, most people sweat in the sun and sweat has the same effect as water: it will break down your sunscreen.

Choosing the right sunscreen

Choosing the right sunscreen is key to safely enjoying a bright, sunny day. How do you find the best one for you? While most sunscreens are promoted for fun in the sun, it’s also important to wear them everyday. If you’re a woman, this means that your sunscreen must work with your makeup. And because we wear them every day, the active ingredients are under greater scrutiny.

We looked at a wide range of sunscreens to find those that would meet our criteria:

  • Minimum SPF 30
  • No (or limited) oxybenzone and/or octinoxate (for chemical sunscreens)
  • Must have zinc oxide, but must not have titanium dioxide alone
  • Positive EWG rating (lower numbers = higher score)
  • Positive user reviews
  • Easily available online or in retail stores


Value Brands

Banana Boat Dry Balance Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+
EWG rating: 5/10 (the lower rating out of ten is more desirable)

One of the few chemical sunscreens available with no oxybenzone or Octinoxate. Banana Boat Dry Balance Broad Spectrum Sunscreen is good for both face and body and is good under makeup. Reviewers on a variety of sites report that it doesn’t cause breakouts. It isn’t greasy or sticky. It absorbs excess moisture, leaves a soft matte finish, and lets skin breathe – so your skin feels fresh, dry and comfortable. Widely available.

From a reviewer: “I like that it feels dry like lotion, not sticky like sunblock. It has a beautiful light scent. It’s a great lotion that has great sunblock power.”

About $8 on

Coppertone Defend & Care Ultra Hydrate Whipped Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50
EWG rating: 3/10

Coppertone Defend & Care Ultra Hydrate Whipped Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50 is a broad-spectrum chemical sunscreen that protects against the sun’s most damaging UV rays and won’t clog your pores. It is good under makeup and it’s fragrance-free. Octinoxate free. The SPF 30 includes 4% oxybenzone, the SPF 50 includes 6% oxybenzone.

From a reviewer: “[This sunscreen is] chemical based but the chemicals used are actually low toxicity. No Oxybenzone and no Octinoxate! I did notice that this sunscreen is a little on the pricey side but I think that’s why – they managed to get rid of the whiteness without exposing you to the really harmful chemicals. In addition, it goes on smoothly without a greasy feel and gets absorbed quickly. I have sensitive skin that often limits what skin products I use but I’ve had no reaction whatsoever to this. There is a slight, sun-screeny smell but it’s very faint.”

About $9.99 on

Blue Lizard Baby SPF 30+
EWG rating: 1/10 (best score)

Blue Lizard Baby mineral sunscreen has no skin-irritating fragrances or parabens and is pediatrician-recommended, but many adults use it, too.  Unlike many mineral sunscreens it is not greasy and is water resistant for 40 minutes.  Blue Lizard is an Australian manufacturer, the land where they know sun.  Good for the body, it leaves no white cast and is highly protective.

From a reviewer:

“First tried this as a sample from the dermo’s office. Let me say right up front, I am not wearing this under makeup. This is my “gardening/mowing/doing whatever outside” sunscreen. I want it to stay put; I’m not concerned with cosmetic elegance. And it stays put! Some ladies perspire: I sweat like an overworked draft horse. It. Didn’t. Budge. It isn’t greasy, which a lot of mineral sunscreens are. It doesn’t irritate my skin in the least, has no scent and I don’t get burned, and don’t get much tan. Can’t ask for more than that. If your criteria for a sunscreen are like mine for this, then get this stuff. Love it to pieces.”

About $14.00 on

Mychelle Replenishing Solar Defense SPF 30
Consumer Reports score: 100 (best score); EWG rating: 2/10

This is an unscented, mineral-based sunscreen with aloe and Vitamin E for face and body.  The company maintains that the product uses translucent zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that don’t leave a white cast but rather a smooth, matte finish.  Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide a safe alternative to harsh chemical, heat-absorbing sunscreens.  This is for daily use. The company suggests allowing the product to absorb completely before applying make-up.

From a reviewer:

So I have been on an endless search for a sunscreen that will work on my very oily skin (e.g., want a matte finish, not a shiny or dewy finish), blend in with the tan color of my South Asian skin (without leaving a white/gray cast), and is a physical sunblock (that is also approved by the Environmental Working Group). I have found my holy grail!!!

I happened to stumble upon this at Whole foods and it was on sale for $15. So far I’m very happy with it as it is matte, truly blends in leaving no color even though it comes out of the tube white, and my makeup looks nice over it. It is SPF 28 and while I was looking for an SPF 30 product, this is close enough as it is a physical sunblock which is much better for your skin than a chemical one. Great price, great tube, and I love the unscented version.”

About $22 on

Premium Brands

Kiehl’s Super Fluid UV Mineral Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50+
4.3/5 stars on; 3.5/5 stars on; EWG rating: 4

Kiehl’s Dermatologist Solutions™ Super Fluid UV Mineral Defense Titanium Dioxide Sunscreen SPF 50+ is formulated with a 100% mineral based filter in a lightweight, gentle lotion that sensitive and acne-prone skin will find non-irritating and comfortable. This sheer sunscreen, lightly tinted to enhance the natural skin tone, delivers UVA and UVB broad-spectrum protection.  Some reviewers found the tint too light, others, too dark. Recommend trying a sample in store before purchase.

From a reviewer: “This one has a universal tint, very similar to many Asian sunscreens, slightly greyish beige which in case of darker skin tones might leave a pallid cast on your skin. For my light complexion with yellow undertones it actually spreads and blends in well and I cannot see the colour cast after it sinks in. Although initially it goes slightly pinkish-grey as I pile it on, then it kind of blends with my skin colour and any shine disappears leaving a delicate, almost satin veil.

About $38.00 at and other retailers.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral SPF 50 Sunscreen
EWG rating: 3/10

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral SPF 50 Sunscreen is a 100% mineral sunscreen with zinc oxide and antioxidant protection for the face. Non-whitening, with a smooth, velvety finish that sinks into the skin quickly and evenly. Weightless texture, matte finish. Suitable for sensitive skin.

From a reviewer: “I love the way this sunscreen absorbs into the skin quickly and is so smooth and easy to apply. I’ve used sunscreen in the past that was thick and hard to spread and was hard to get into the skin enough to not have white streaks. This sunscreen is so different. It really is a nice smooth texture that spreads very easily. I use this on my body and a different product on my face, but I actually think this could work as a facial sunscreen too.”

About $33.50 on

Coola Mineral Sun Silk Crème SPF 30
EWG rating: 5/10

This hydrating, silky smooth finish layers well under makeup.  It has an oil-free, airy-light formula that glides on to form a transparent veil, ideal for everyday use. Non-nano zinc oxide provides broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection while their plant-derived full spectrum 360° complex helps mitigate the effects of today’s skin-aggressors.  It is fragrance-free, dermatologist tested, non-comedogenic and reef friendly.

From a reviewer: “Coola is the top sunscreen in my book. I use this product every time I am out in the sun. It always protects and never disappoints. I use this on my children’s faces also as they burn easily but with this product I know they will be safe from sunburns.”

About $42.00 on or at

LANCOME Bienfait Multi-Vital Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30
EWG rating: 3

Lancôme’s Bienfait Multi-Vital SPF 30 Day Cream Moisturizer is a unique daily moisturizer for all skin types, enriched with Vitamin E, Vitamin CG and Vitamin B5, providing 24-hours of hydration.  Containing antioxidants, Vitamin E, Vitamin CG and Vitamin B5, it helps fights visible effects of environmental aggressors and offers protection from sun damage with dermatologist recommended broad spectrum (UVA-UVB radiation) SPF 30 protection.

From a reviewer: “I became a Lancome customer in the mid-80’s. I thought this product was available back then, but the earliest research I can find on it is from 1994. Regardless, my skin is radiant with very few wrinkles at all and I just turned 58. People are shocked when they find out my age. It is all due to this product, used EVERY DAY for the past 18+ years. “

About $50.00 at

La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Daily Moisturizing Cream, SPF 15
EWG rating: 2/10

La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Daily Face Moisturizing Cream with Sunscreen SPF 15 provides broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection to help prevent effects of sun damage with peak efficacy against short UVA rays. Formulated with Mexoryl SX, the only new sun filter approved by the FDA in a sunscreen in the last 20 years. The face moisturizer delivers 24-hour hydration and is suitable to use under makeup.

From a reviewer: This has no smell and melts right in. It really protects your skin. The best face sunscreen I have ever used. I am outside every day in intense 8,000 feet mountain sun.”

About $34.00 on

Editor’s Note: Researching this article on sunscreen was a reality check for me.  While I regularly use a moisturizer with an SPF 15 or more on my face every morning, I had become very lazy in applying sunscreen to my body.  Since I have never liked lying in the sun, and I always sit under an umbrella, I figured that I was protected.  As I found out, I was not.  Sunscreen has now become a staple for me, like toothpaste and shampoo. 

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