Finding the best sunscreens for your face is harder than it should be. We all know we’re supposed to wear sunscreen, but many of us aren’t doing it enough, properly, or at all simply because we haven’t found the right sunblock for our particular skin type.
For real, though, sunscreen is important! Not only does UV exposure cause cosmetic issues like dark spots and wrinkles, it can also exacerbate some skin conditions (including acne!) and can, of course, lead to skin cancer. Sunscreen is your best defense against all of that and the single best thing you can do for your skin is to apply it every day, rain or shine.
But, yes, sunscreen can also be greasy, thick, and just plain unpleasant to wear. And to be fair, it’s hard to start any new habit. Here’s everything you need to know to find the best SPF for your face, as recommended by dermatologists.
What’s the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens?
Mineral and chemical sunscreens are both effective at protecting you from the sun’s UV rays, but they do so in different ways. Mineral sunscreens—also called physical blockers—contain ingredients like titanium oxide or zinc oxide, Nada Elbuluk, M.D., clinical assistant professor of dermatology and director of the Skin of Color Center and Pigmentary Disorders Clinic at USC Keck School of Medicine, tells SELF.
These ingredients are thought to literally shield the skin from UV rays “like an umbrella,” Mary L. Stevenson, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF.
And chemical sunscreens contain chemicals (like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octisalate) that absorb and change the UV rays before they hit your skin in a way that prevents them from causing damage. Essentially, they absorb and change light into heat, which doesn’t cause damage. (Although, interestingly, recent research suggests that mineral sunscreens may do this too, in addition to blocking UV rays.)
Mineral sunscreens are the ones we usually associate with leaving a chalky white cast on the face, which might make them less desirable to some people. But, Dr. Stevenson says, newer technologies and combinations of mineral and chemical sunscreens offer more “elegant” formulations that don’t always leave that residue and simply feel nicer on the skin.
Some people with sensitive skin may find that they’re more sensitive to chemical sunscreen ingredients, and some ingredients (like avobenzone) are known to cause allergic reactions. Dr. Elbuluk says people can actually develop contact dermatitis to ingredients in either kind of sunscreen. Still, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that people with sensitive skin start with mineral sunscreens. In general, mineral sunscreens tend to be gentler and are often found in baby sunscreens.
That said, there’s no reason to think you can’t use any chemical sunscreen if you have sensitive skin—you’ll just have to read the ingredients and know that you might be sensitive to some of them. Because these formulas tend to be more moisturizer-like and absorb a little more easily than traditional mineral sunscreens, you may be more likely to actually wear these regularly. Plus, many sunscreens these days contain both mineral and chemical ingredients.
Here’s what to look for when trying to find the best sunscreens for your face.
Everyone needs to do a little trial and error to find a sunscreen that works for them and their particular skin type and lifestyle. Although the chemical versus mineral divide is a big one, it isn’t necessarily the most important—you really just need to find a sunscreen that you like. So here are some general guidelines to get you started.
Wear at least SPF 30 every day. The SPF value on sunscreen refers to the amount of sun protection that it adds to your skin, but it’s complicated. It’s really a measure of how much more protection you’ll have with the sunscreen compared to what’s naturally in your skin. An SPF of 30 means that the sunscreen is giving you 30 times the protection that’s naturally in your skin and it will take 30 times as much sun exposure for you to develop a sunburn—if used exactly as directly (a task we know few of us are actually capable of).
So everyone should be using SPF 10,000 right? Not quite. First off, SPF is not a measure of how long you can be in the sun without reapplying; higher SPFs wear off just as quickly as lower ones.
And we know that there’s a ceiling here: Back in 2011, the FDA limited the maximum SPF that companies were allowed to advertise on labels in the U.S. at “50 ” because “there is not sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection for users than products with SPF values of 50.” (However, Dr. Stevenson points out that the FDA recently proposed a new rule that would make the cutoff SPF “60 ”).
SPF 30 is plenty for most of us on a day-to-day basis. However, it really depends. If your day-to-day currently (or even just on vacation) involves being outside in direct sunlight, then you might want something stronger, especially if you’re prone to burning. And if you’re doing any swimming or sweating while out in the sun, keep in mind that you definitely need to reapply after these activities.
Also, note that SPF is not additive: If you’re wearing one product with SPF 20 and another with SPF 30, that doesn’t mean you have SPF 50 on, it just means you have whatever the highest level is (SPF 30 here).
Make sure you have broad spectrum protection. It was traditionally thought that UVA exposure only caused signs of aging (like wrinkles and dark spots) and temporary damage, while UVB rays were primarily responsible for upping your risk for skin cancer. But we now know that both types of UV can contribute to your risk for skin cancer, Dr. Stevenson says, so it’s important to be protected against them both. Luckily, more and more sunscreens are broad spectrum these days, meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
It’s important to remember that the SPF on a label only refers to the value of UVB protection. So if your sunscreen doesn’t say “broad spectrum,” you don’t know how much protection against UVA it’s giving you, if any.
The SPF in your makeup doesn’t count as sunscreen. First off, it’s rare that makeup contains SPF 30 or higher, and even if it does, you’re probably not putting it on thick enough or in enough places for it to act as a true sunscreen. But Dr. Stevenson says that the stuff in your moisturizer (or BB or CC cream or whatever you’re using like a moisturizer) might! Just remember to apply it to your neck and the top of your ears as well as your face, Dr. Elbuluk says. However, if you’re going to be spending any significant time in the sun, like at the beach or on a hike, you need a dedicated sunscreen.
That might go for powdered sunscreens, too, unfortunately. These nifty products probably don’t replace the need for regular sunscreen, Dr. Stevenson says. She prefers that her patients use a classic sunscreen or moisturizer with SPF in the morning, but she says powdered versions can be used for an on-the-go touch up if needed later in the day. (For instance, you put on sunscreen under your makeup in the morning and then need to reapply it over the makeup in the afternoon.) However, Dr. Elbuluk says powdered sunscreens can totally count as your daily sunscreen and can be especially helpful for reapplying. But the most important thing is still “that it’s broad spectrum and SPF 30 or higher,” she says.
Additionally, there are some sunscreens that have been formulated for specific skin concerns. For instance, Dr. Stevenson says those with oily or acne-prone skin should be diligent about getting sunscreen that’s labeled oil-free or noncomedogenic (like Neutrogena Clear Face Liquid-Lotion Sunscreen, $10).
People who have dry or sensitive skin should (as always) look for hydrating formulas without ingredients known to be irritating, such as fragrances. And Dr. Stevenson suggests patch-testing the product on your inner arm before putting it all over your face. The La Roche-Posay Anthelios line is a consistent favorite as is the (SELF Healthy Beauty Award-winning) Aveeno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30, $19.
If you already have some visible sun damage, you may want to opt for a sunscreen that contains ingredients like antioxidants, which could help do some nice things for your skin while simultaneously protecting you from more damage. (Check out SkinCeuticals Light Moisture UV Defense SPF 50, $39.)
The best sunscreen for you is the one you’ll use every single day.
It might take a few failed attempts before you find a sunscreen you actually like enough to use every day. If you’re in the market for a new sunscreen, it may be worth asking your favorite drugstore or beauty store what their return policy is—especially if you’re worried about finding a formula that doesn’t give you a reaction after using it for a while. So, as you embark on this adventure remember these major points from our derms:
Yes, you need it every single day. You’re still exposed to UV rays when it’s cloudy and cold, Dr. Elbuluk says. And remember that skin cancer is not just the result of a few bad sunburns, she says, it can be caused by the cumulative exposure you get every day, little by little. So it’s important not just to find a sunblock you’ll wear on trips to the beach, but also to find the best daily face sunscreen for your skin.
Don’t forget to reapply. Just putting sunscreen on once in the morning isn’t always enough, especially if you’re going to be out in the sun for a few hours. You should be reapplying after sweating or getting wet and every two hours of outdoor sun. If you apply in the morning under your makeup, and then you’re inside at work all day, you’re probably good. But if you’re playing or working outside, keep in mind that you’ll have to reapply at some point.
You don’t need to spend a lot. Yes, luxury sunscreens seem extra fancy and have price tags to match. But the ones you’ll find at your local drugstore often work just as well, and many of them have formulas that are perfectly fine, Dr. Elbuluk says. Just because something is expensive “doesn’t mean it’s better.”
Skin of color still needs sunscreen. “Sunscreen is for everybody,” Dr. Elbuluk says. Although rates of skin cancer are generally lower among people of color, these cancers do still happen and are, in fact, often deadlier in those patients. So those with skin of color still need to use sunscreen.
Sunscreen is just one part of sun protection. Obviously, sunscreen should be your first line of defense against sun exposure, but it can’t do everything. That’s why it’s important to use your other sun safety strategies, like staying in the shade when you can and wearing sun protective clothing on top of using sunscreen.
Ultimately, there are a ton of sunscreens out there and they can feel different to different people. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t like one—just keep trying. To help you out, we asked dermatologists for the best sunscreens for your face and listed their options below. Still, if you feel like you’ve tried everything and haven’t found a sunscreen you like enough to use consistently, ask your dermatologist for some suggestions.
All products featured on SELF are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.