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Which sunscreen is best for you? Dermatologists on what to look for

Physical or chemical? Cream or spray? Dermatologists help you choose the best type of sunscreen for your skin type.

There's one skin care product that every single person needs in their routine, and that's sunscreen.

"Sunscreen is vital in preventing aging, burning and cancer — the ABC's," Marnie Nussbaum, a board-certified dermatologist, told TODAY in a segment on June 20.

Other than staying out of the sun entirely, wearing sunscreen is your best defense against the sun’s powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays and habitual use minimizes your risk of developing skin cancer — the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. It also has additional benefits, including reducing painful sunburns and preventing signs of premature aging such as wrinkles, sunspots and skin laxity.

But many of us have some hangups with the product that make it less-than-appealing to apply each day. Think: gloppy lotions that are impossible to rub in, weird smells or streaky white casts that don’t work for your complexion.

Luckily, the world of SPF has made major strides even in the last decade and is ripe with superior formulations that feel great on your skin while protecting it.

How to choose the best sunscreen

Not sure how to choose the best sunscreen for you? We spoke with two board-certified dermatologists to help you know what to look for in the sunscreen aisle. They say the first thing to do is start with four non-negotiables.

Any sunscreen you buy should meet the following criteria:

  • Broad-spectrum, which protects against both UV-A and UV-B rays
  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Not past its expiration date
  • Is one you don’t mind applying

From there, you can make personal decisions regarding physical versus chemical, formulation type and SPF levels.

Types of sunscreen: What’s the difference between physical and chemical sunscreen?

The primary difference between chemical and physical sunscreen is how each protects your skin.

“A physical sunscreen works by creating a barrier on top of the skin that shields the sun’s rays. Imagine little mirrors on your skin deflecting light off your skin when thinking of mineral sunscreen ingredients,” explains Ellen Marmur, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of ‘Skin Cancer, Take a Hike!’ an initiative to raise funds for skin cancer prevention.

Chemical sunscreen ingredients absorb UV light rather than blocking it and turn the light into a non-damaging “heat.” Marmur says to imagine these are little baseball mitts that capture UV rays and convert them into heat vapor.

These differences affect the formulation. Physical sunscreens, which utilize zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, tend to feel slightly thicker. Certain formulations can also leave a subtle white cast on your skin, though some are made with skin-colored pigments that help minimize this effect.

Chemical sunscreens — which use ingredients such as avobenzone, octocrylene and oxybenzone — are typically very sheer. They also feature clear formulations that won’t create a white cast. In terms of formulation elegance, chemical sunscreens often win the game. Board-certified dermatologist Ava Shamban says, “Don’t let fears about chemicals outweigh the fear or risk of the UV rays, which remains the major risk factor for skin cancer.”


Choose physical sunscreen if:

  • You have sensitive skin
  • You have acne-prone skin
  • You prefer ‘natural’ skincare products

Choose chemical sunscreen if:

  • You prefer a sheer and lightweight formulation 
  • You have a darker complexion
  • You want to avoid a white cast

Types of sunscreen: choosing an SPF rating

SPF stands for "sun protection factor. The higher your number, the more protection you have, the less of the chance of a sunburn," said Nussbaum.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day. This protects against approximately 97% of the sun’s UV rays. You can also opt for a higher SPF, which provides incremental protection on top of that.

“If you are going to be spending extended periods of time bathing in the sun, you should use a higher SPF,” Marmur notes.

No matter what SPF rating you choose, reapply with the same consistency: every two hours outdoors (or after getting wet) and every four hours indoors.

Types of sunscreen: formulation types

Sunscreen comes in many forms, including cream, gel, spray, sticks, lotion, serum and powder.

"The best sunscreen is the one you're going to use because consistency is key," said Nussbaum.

“I suggest having a plethora of all of the types of sun protection and select what is best for your life each day,” says Marmur. “For instance, a spray at the beach, a lotion at the pool, and a stick for your kids and your eyes, lips, nose. A powder for reapplication during the day over your makeup is also good to keep on hand.”

A sheer SPF cream, gel or serum for your face is nice for everyday wear and pairs nicely with makeup (if that’s part of your daily regimen).

Each sunscreen type requires a unique application approach. Follow the label instructions to make sure you’re getting the indicated SPF protection.

Don’t rely solely on makeup with built-in SPF

Many makeup products advertise built-in SPF protection, but this should always be layered on top of regular SPF.

“Most makeup and moisturizers with sunscreen often do not have enough protection,” warns Shamban. “A tinted sunscreen product is usually a better option if you are going for one lighter layer or use a lotion formula under makeup.”

Other considerations when choosing a sunscreen

Certain lifestyle factors might also come into play when choosing the best sunscreen for you.

  • Sensitive or acne-prone skin: Choose a physical SPF that’s free of dyes or fragrances. Products labeled as non-comedogenic are most suitable for acne-prone skin.
  • Playing sports: Sweating can reduce the efficacy of your sunscreen. A sport sunscreen is formulated to withstand sweat and provide longer protection.
  • Spending time outdoors: If you spend a lot of time outdoors, always opt for the higher SPF.
  • Makeup and reapplication: Sunscreen should be reapplied every two to four hours, or after getting wet. If you wear makeup, choose sunscreen that’s easy to reapply such as a pressed powder or lightweight moisturizing sunscreen.

At the end of the day — or should we say ‘at the top of the morning’ — the best sunscreen for you is one that meets the non-negotiable criteria and is easy to slather on. After all, when a product is simple to apply it’s much easier to integrate into your daily routine.