The best sunscreen
- Daily use of a good sunscreen will fend off sunburns today, and help prevent the damage that leads to prematurely aged skin later on in life.
- We primarily recommend mineral-based sunscreens from All Good, La-Roche Posay, and Raw Elements, but for those looking for a chemical-based one, we recommend Coppertone Ultraguard SPF 70.
- Check out our other guides on the best facial sunscreen and best sport sunscreen.
Growing up in Southern California, summertime meant heading to the beach or swimming pool, a bottle of what was then labeled "tanning oil" in hand. SPF wasn't a thing back then. In fact, I often slathered mineral oil on my skin to increase the tanning effects. Of course, I paid a price for that youthful foolishness with sunburns back then, and today, in freckled patches of sun damage along with a greatly increased risk of skin cancer.
Knowledge of the powerful and dangerous effects of the sun's ultraviolet rays has come a long way in the decades since my fruitless attempts at tanning. Today, it's well understood that excessive sun exposure damages skin both on the surface and deep beneath the epidermis, and that damage is cumulative throughout your lifetime. That's why you need to use sunscreen if not daily, then at least when you'll be out in the sun for hours.
After all, no one wants their summer vacation spoiled by a painful sunburn - and certainly, no one wants to hear bad news from their dermatologist. So slather on one of the following skin-saving products and enjoy your fun in the sun, but remember - once your skin starts to turn pink, the damage has already been done.
Understanding ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVBThere are two types of UV light that contribute to the risk of skin cancer: Ultraviolet A (UVA), which has a longer wavelength and is associated with skin aging, and Ultraviolet B (UVB), which has a shorter wavelength and is associated with skin burning. Here are a few more important facts (although, for the full rundown, you should check out The American Cancer Society's website):
- These rays are connected to the "broad spectrum protection" you see on sunscreens.
- While UVA rays are less intense than UVB rays, they penetrate your skin more deeply. Basically, exposure to UVA rays can cause genetic damage to cells in the top layer of your skin, where most skin cancer occurs. The skin then tries to prevent further damage by darkening (that's a suntan). In other words, tanned skin is damaged skin.
- While we're on the topic, UVA rays are also present in tanning beds.
- UVA rays maintain the same level of strength during the daytime throughout the year. In other words, you're not just at risk for exposure during the summer.
- They can also penetrate windows.
- UVB rays are connected to the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) on sunscreens. That number tells you how long it would take for the sun's radiation to begin to burn your skin (if you do a little math). So, if your skin normally burns after 10 minutes in the sun, an SPF 30 sunscreen would provide 30 times the protection, or a 300-minute shield.
- While UVB rays can cause skin damage year-round, their intensity fluctuates depending on the season and the time of day.
- UVB rays cannot penetrate windows.
The only compounds that protect us from the full spectrum of both UVA and UVB rays are zinc oxide and Tinosorbs M and S, which remain untested by the FDA and are thus unavailable in the US (although they're common sunscreen ingredients throughout Europe and Asia).
Scary, huh? We'll keep an eye out for new rulings going forward.
The problems with chemical sunscreens
Last year, we found out once and for all that the active ingredients in chemical-based sunscreens were killing off coral reefs at an alarming rate. This spring, we learned that those chemicals - Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, and Ecamsule - are traceable in our blood's plasma, some only after a day's use. What this means is unclear, but both the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration agree that more research is needed.That being said, all of the active ingredients in sunscreen are potentially harmful to us. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (heavy and light metals, respectively), are toxic in certain doses, but they're nowhere near as harmful to the environment (and perhaps us) as the chemicals listed above, according to recent findings by the FDA, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
So, while the FDA takes time to decide what's safe and what's not, they recommend we all continue to use sunscreen, but maybe only physical, or mineral sunscreens, which work to reflect the sun's rays rather than absorb them, like chemical sunscreens.
Collectively, we have over a decade of experience reporting on sunscreen, and more than half a century of wearing it almost daily. We're not scientists, and we're certainly not claiming to be, but we are going to suggest that, whether it's your health or the coral reef's that concerns you more, it's probably a good move to leave the chemical sunscreen on the shelf, at least for now.
Below are physical (a.k.a. mineral-based) sunscreens that many of us at Insider Picks have tried and found to be effective. But first, there are a few things you should know.
The pros and cons of physical sunscreens
Physical or mineral-based sunscreens are often 100% organic, using either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to deflect UV rays, rather than absorb them like chemical sunscreens. A concentration of about 18% zinc oxide or 14.5% titanium dioxide or a certain combination thereof will do the trick.
You do, however, have a bit more work cut out with you when applying mineral-based sunscreens. Because they take so much effort to rub in, we often make the mistake of leaving skin uncovered, or less covered than it would be with chemical sunscreens.
Here are our top picks for the best sunscreen you can buy:
- Best mineral-based sunscreen overall: All Good Sunscreen Butter
- Best mineral spray-on sunscreen: Supergoop's Mineral Sunscreen Mist
- Best cheap sunscreen: Thinksport's SPF 50+ Sunscreen
- Best facial sunscreen: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Light Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50
- Best for the water: Manda's SPF 50 Organic Sun Paste with Thanaka
- Best sunscreen for kids: Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50
- Best chemical sunscreen (if you must): Coppertone Ultraguard SPF 70
Editor's note: Chemical-based sunscreen is effective, but active ingredients within it (namely avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate) are being identified and reexamined by the US Food and Drug Administration as a potential endocrine disrupter (and carcinogen). These chemicals have also been linked to high mortality among corals, along with a growing list of other aquatic creatures.
Updated on 10/9/2019 by Owen Burke and Caitlin Petreycik: Updated copy, links, and text. We are currently researching and testing new options for a future update.
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