Even on days dotted with cloudy skies, up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays can penetrate your skin. You may even be surprised to learn that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. “Every burn significantly increases your risk of developing skin cancer,” Dr. Karan Lal, a board-certified dermatologist based in Arizona, tells Mental Floss. He also notes that another reason to wear sunscreen daily is that UV radiation contributes to photoaging, which over time can degrade collagen and elastin in skin, and potentially lead to the development of brown spots and broken blood vessels.
So what’s the average person to do? Slathering your skin with sunscreen is a good step, but given the plethora of products on the market today, it can be tough to narrow down what the best options are. With that in mind, we asked experts to shine a light on what you should (and should not) be looking for when you’re shopping for the best sunscreen.
Sunscreen 101: Here’s What To Know
When it comes to sunscreen, most folks know it’s important to think about SPF, which stands for sun protection factor. Dr. Anthony Rossi, a board-certified dermatologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and founder of Dr. Rossi DERM MD, says that SPF is the “ratio of equivalent exposure by [ultraviolet B (UVB) rays on] protected [skin] compared with unprotected skin.”
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) notes on their website that you should select a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum—meaning ultraviolet A (UVA) and UVB—protection, contains an SPF of 30 or higher, and is water-resistant. Dr. Rossi backs this up: “The SPF should be at least 25 [to] 30,” he tells Mental Floss, although he stresses that SPF 30 or above is best. “This is also predicated on reapplying every two hours and applying a thick and even coat of sun protection on the skin.”
But when you’re putting it on, is there such thing as too little—or too much? Dr. Lal says that one shot glass worth of sunscreen should be enough to cover your whole body and get adequate protection. Just make sure you’re paying attention to the expiration date on that bottle. “On average, [sunscreen expires] three years [after] purchasing," he adds. This is in accordance with the FDA, which mandates that all sunscreens have a three-year shelf life. However, both experts note that how you store it can impact its effectiveness over time. “You should store sunscreen in a cool place so the formulation doesn’t overheat,” Dr. Rossi says.
Mineral Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens: What’s the Difference?
Beyond SPF, it's important to also turn a critical eye toward what’s actually in your sunscreen, because some have better ingredients than others. There’s also more than one type out there: chemical or mineral (also known as physical) sunscreen. According to the AAD, chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays “like a sponge” while mineral sunscreens deflect the sun’s rays like a shield.
Chemical versions are absorbed into the skin and typically contain one or more of these active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Because they glide on easily and don’t tend to leave a white residue behind, they can be a popular choice among shoppers. However, some recent research and studies suggest that exposure to oxybenzone and avobenzone may not be good for children or those who are pregnant.
Mineral sunscreen, on the other hand, sits on top of the skin and typically contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients. While they can be highly protective, the AAD notes that mineral sunscreens are more likely to leave a white residue, unless you grab one that’s tinted.
The ultimate goal is to find a sunscreen you’ll use everyday and that best protects your specific skin type. “If you have sensitive skin, you should avoid chemical sunscreens which contain avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and octyl salicylate,” Dr. Lal says. “These are more likely to cause allergic contact reactions.” Dr. Rossi, who advises against using sunscreens with parabens, prefers mineral sunscreens, which have historically been known as sunblock. “Mineral sunblocks are also less irritating. Chemical filters are more common culprits of irritation and allergy to sunscreen,” he says.
Whether you choose a chemical or mineral sunscreen, make sure you check the label to see what the product offers and how it will perform, and as always, it’s a good idea to talk with a dermatologist or other trusted healthcare provider before making your selection.
4 of the Best Sunscreens You Can Buy Now
1. Best Mineral Sunscreen: CeraVe Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30; $18
According to Dr. Lal, CeraVe makes the best mineral sunscreen. It’s formulated with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to reflect UVA/UVB rays and protect the skin. It also contains three essential ceramides that assist in restoring your skin’s natural barrier and locking in moisture, and has no trace amounts of oxybenzone, avobenzone, or benzene. “CeraVe’s hydrating mineral sunscreen (tinted or non-tinted) is hands down the most gentle sunscreen. It’s my go-to for pediatric patients and any patient with super-sensitive skin,” Dr. Lal says.
2. Best Chemical Sunscreen: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-in Milk Body & Face Sunscreen SPF 60; $26
Another brand that’s a favorite among a couple of the dermatologists we surveyed is La Roche-Posay. Dr. Holly R. Mason, a dermatologist at Northeast Dermatology Associates in Salem, Massachusetts, recommends the brand’s Anthelios melt-in milk body and face sunscreen exclusively for her clients. It contains avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene as active ingredients, but this lightweight and fast-absorbing sunscreen is oxybenzone- and octinoxate-free, and formulated with the brand’s unique Cell–Ox shield, which provides protection plus antioxidants that could be good for people with sensitive skin who are prone to burning.
3. Best Tinted Mineral Sunscreen With A High SPF: EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46 Tinted Face Sunscreen; $41
This zinc oxide-based, tinted facial mineral sunscreen is unscented and helps calm and protect sensitive skin types. According to Dr. Lal, it “goes on nicely” and offers broad spectrum protection, which means it’s good against harmful UVA/UVB rays.
4. Best for Reapplications: Supergoop! (Re)setting 100% Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF 35 PA+++; $35
In general, Dr. Lal is a fan of Supergoop! because it has so many sunscreen formulations. But he likes this mineral powder sunscreen in particular, referring to it as his “go-to” for reapplications. It contains 100 percent zinc oxide, as well as ceramides and olive glycerides (which the brand claims help to seal in moisture), and you can choose from four shades, including a translucent one. “I use it everyday when I am outside,” Dr. Lal says. “It is drying and absorbs moisture and is easy to apply!”
A version of this article was originally published in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.