Narrator: In 2017, researchers tested 20 best-selling US sunscreens. The good news is that 19 of them met FDA standards. The bad news? Nine of them didn’t meet European standards. Turns out, different countries have different rules for what makes a safe sunscreen and US sunscreens may not be protecting Americans as well as it could. When we lay in the sun, our skin absorbs two types of UV light. UVA and UVB rays. UVB light is higher energy and can cause sunburns while UVA penetrates deeper under the skin and can damage skin cells along the bottom layer of your epidermis.
Desai: We know that UVB rays are the rays that cause sunburns. But UVA rays are the rays that can actually cause skin cancer so you actually wanna cover the spectrum on both of those. I think a lot of people get into a misconception that I didn’t get sunburned so I’m not at prone to getting skin cancer which really isn’t true.
Narrator: The biggest concern with US sunscreen is how much protection you’re getting from cancer-causing UVA rays. For decades, FDA regulations required that sunscreens protect against UVB, but not necessarily against UVA. Meanwhile, rates for melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer, kept climbing in the US. Then, in 2012, the FDA updated its regulations on labeling and testing so that manufacturers must now let customers know if its sunscreen protects against both UVB and UVA. That’s what the broad spectrum label on your sunscreen means, for example. And while this is a good first step, there’s still no regulation on how much protection you’re getting from UVA. So, there’s no way to tell.
Desai: Here in the United States, I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that when a sunscreen says it’s broad spectrum, UVA- and UVB-protecting, that does mean you’re going to get protection against those rays. However, what it does not mean is that it’s going to block out all of the rays.
Narrator: And that’s where US sunscreens fall short.
Desai: And I will say that I do think we are behind other countries globally, particularly some of our European counterparts, in getting new sunscreen ingredients approved. Overall, there has not been much change in US sunscreen composition and what our sunscreens are made up of in the past several years.
Narrator: The FDA has approved 16 active ingredients that protect against UV radiation. But only some protect against both UVB and UVA rays. For comparison, Europe requires that all of its more than 20 active ingredients protect against both.
Desai: Right now, the American Academy of Dermatology and other organizations are really advocating with the FDA that they need to really speed up the approval process for new sunscreen ingredients. Because it’s with these ingredients that we can probably get even better coverage and better protection and maybe even get something that’s easier to apply, that’s easier on the skin, that doesn’t have any harmful side effects for patients.
Narrator: You can purchase sunscreens from other countries online. But if you plan on sticking with American sunscreens, look for the broad spectrum label and don’t buy anything below SPF 30.
Desai: The higher the SPF, definitely the better. But we definitely don’t want anyone going below a 30. And think about if you’re someone who has a history of a melanoma, if you use an SPF 30, you’re blocking out let’s say 98% of the harmful rays. However, what about the remaining 2%? That 2% may be something that could be potential of putting you at a risk down the road.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in November 2018.
Sunscreen is a must anytime you’re going to be in the sun, but it’s important to pick the right type for your skin and your lifestyle. While most traditional bottles are chemical-based sunscreens, these can sometimes irritate sensitive skin. Enter mineral sunscreen – a safe and effective alternative to typical tubes that is especially recommended for this skin type.
Mineral sunscreens physically block UV rays by reflecting them away from the skin, while chemical sunscreens absorb the UV rays, Marisa Garshick, MD, an NYC-based board-certified dermatologist told Insider.
Jeanine Downie, MD, board-certified dermatologist in New Jersey, pointed out that mineral sunscreens aren’t necessarily “healthier” for your skin than chemical sunscreens – if you choose a chemical option with gentle ingredients, it shouldn’t irritate sensitive skin and you won’t deal with any white residue. But some people do prefer an always-gentle mineral sunscreen or want to err on the side of caution until we understand exactly how the chemical ingredients absorbed into our bloodstream interact with human hormones.
Mineral sunscreen’s biggest downside is that it’s traditionally been hard to rub in, leaving your arms and legs with a white sheen. But newer formulas rub in just as well as chemical sunscreens, and many brands have formulated options specifically for those with a darker skin tone.
Whichever sunscreen you’re using, it’s important to always use SPF 30 or above and to reapply the formula every two hours if you’re in the Northeast, every hour if you’re closer to the equator, Dr. Downie said. You should apply sunscreen more often if you have fairer skin, too.
With dermatologist-backed perspectives, research, and testing, we rounded up the best mineral sunscreens – and a complementary FAQ on sunscreen use and efficacy – below.
Pros: Developed by dermatologists; contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide; oil-free, recognized by the National Eczema Association and the Skin Cancer Foundation; contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide; won’t clog pores; fragrance- and paraben-free; allergen-tested
Cons: May be slightly chalky on darker skin tones
Recommended use: Apply a small amount to one part of your body at a time, preferably 15 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply every two hours, or less than that if you have fairer skin.
CeraVe was developed by dermatologists to contain three essential ceramides, a type of lipid that locks in moisture and protects your skin’s barrier from the elements. The moisture-retaining ingredient hyaluronic acid, along with niacinamide, is also found in the formula. These two ingredients, according to NYC-based dermatologist Marina Peredo, MD, brightens and hydrates your skin, which she explained in our best eye creams and serums guide.
This formula does leave a slight chalky residue, but it rubs in well enough for the majority of lighter skin tones; however, it is probably not ideal for darker skin if you don’t want that white overlay (see our specific pick below).
What’s more, CeraVe is non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog your pores. It’s also fragrance- and paraben-free and allergen-tested. You can use it on your body, too.
It’s also hypoallergenic and, according to Dr. Peredo, this distinction means it’s likely void of parabens and fragrances. For an option you can swing at a drugstore at an affordable price, it’s a quality mineral sunscreen to stow away in your beach tote.
Pros: Easy application, water-resistant, dermatologist-tested, lightweight, vegan, gluten- and paraben-free
Cons: Doesn’t contain titanium dioxide
Recommended use: Hold the nozzle close to your skin and spray until your skin glistens. Then, rub it in thoroughly. Also, note that this 6 oz. bottle contains six applications, according to spray sunscreen guidance from the American Academy of Dermatology.
Sometimes, applying lotion-based sunscreen can take too long, especially when you’re in a hurry to hit the beach or jump in the water. The Sun Bum Mineral SPF 30 Sunscreen Spray allows you to quickly and evenly apply your much-needed protectant, which contains zinc oxide as its active ingredient.
The vegan spray-on sunscreen is also gluten- and paraben-free. Though the spray comes out white, it applies more transparently.
Pros: Doesn’t leave a noticeable white cast, contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, helps treat signs of aging with antioxidants
Recommended use: Apply to face, neck, and body and reapply after sweating, swimming, and towel drying.
As a BIPOC expert, Dr. Downie isn’t a big fan of mineral sunscreens because they often leave a white tint on dark skin. That said, she recommends the SkinMedica Total Defense Repair SPF 34 Tinted Sunscreen, which absorbs well, contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and even helps to treat signs of aging with its antioxidant ingredient blend.
“We, as human beings, react to indoor and outdoor lighting and the blue light from the phone, computer, and tablets,” Dr. Downie said. “Therefore, all races need protection from sunlight and indoor light daily with reapplication.”
For a sunscreen that will protect against UVA and UVB rays, helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and works well for dark skin, SkinMedia is dermatologist-approved.
“Surfers, swimmers, and anyone partaking in water activities should read the sunscreen label which will indicate if the product is water-resistant and if so, for how long — generally 40 to 80 minutes,” Dr. Garshick said. “Those who partake in water activities should also be encouraged to wear UPF clothing for additional protection.”
You’ll also be protected from UVA and UVB rays since it contains zinc oxide and, with antioxidant protection, its SPF formula will help protect against aging and skin damage.
What’s more, its antioxidant complex — called senna alata — will help to protect against environmental damage. If you’re nervous about applying facial products on delicate skin, it was dermatologist-tested specifically for sensitive skin and is also fragrance-free.
La Roche-Posay’s water resistance will last for up to 40 minutes. And, if tinted sunscreens aren’t your thing, the brand has a non-tinted version that has a thicker consistency.
FAQs on sunscreen
Below, our dermatologist experts answered some common questions on sunscreen use and ingredients to look for, based on your skin type.
What is the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen?
“Mineral sunscreens typically contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and physically block UV rays by reflecting them away from the skin, while chemical sunscreens, containing ingredients such as avobenzone, octisalate, and octocrylene, work by absorbing UV rays, converting them into heat, and then releasing the heat from the skin,” Dr. Garshick explained.
But both are considered safe and effective options for protecting the skin against UV rays, she added.
The other major difference between the two is that chemical sunscreens can be absorbed into the bloodstream. However, it does not necessarily mean these ingredients are unsafe or that the absorbed quantity is enough to cause any problems or concerns, Dr. Garshick pointed out. The FDA is continuing to look into this, but until we have research that shows these ingredients in this amount are harmful to humans, the FDA (and all our experts here) still recommend using whichever type of sunscreen you like most.
What consistency is best for a mineral sunscreen?
“The best sunscreen consistency is the one that feels good on your skin,” Dr. Garshick said. “Those with oily or acne-prone skin may opt for a gel consistency, while those with dry or sensitive skin may prefer a lotion or cream. Those with darker skin types may prefer a lightweight lotion that absorbs easily without leaving a white cast.”
How do I know if a sunscreen is “reef safe?”
According to the National Ocean Service, some sunscreen chemicals threaten marine life, ocean reefs, and the overall ecosystem, simply because humans engage in water-related activities.
“The term reef-safe doesn’t actually have an agreed-upon definition and more research and formal testing requirements would be needed to truly determine what is considered reef safe,” Dr. Garshick said.
Typically, sunscreens formulated without oxybenzone or octinoxate are labeled as reef-safe, she added.
How do I know if sunscreen is vegan?
“Vegan sunscreens refer to sunscreens that don’t contain animal products and aren’t tested on animals,” Dr. Garshick said. “Some ingredients that may be found in non-vegan sunscreens include beeswax, lanolin, stearic acid, and more.”
What sunscreen should I look for if I have acne-prone skin?
Dr. Garshick recommends looking for a non-comedogenic sunscreen to ensure that the formula won’t clog your pores, thus worsening the condition.
Sensitive Skin Liquid Face Sunscreen – SPF 50 (small)
Can I use mineral sunscreen with prescribed acne or facial medications?
“It is especially important for those with acne to wear sunscreen,” Dr. Garshick said. Some acne treatments can make you more sensitive to the sun, plus sunscreen can help to prevent and reduce the dark marks or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can go along with breakouts, she added.
Moreover, some sunscreens may also be formulated with calming or soothing ingredients, like niacinamide which can help to reduce redness and blemishes.
What sunscreen should I look for if I have dry skin?
For dry skin, Dr. Garshick recommends looking for hyaluronic acid, an ingredient known for its hydrating properties. This will nourish and protect your skin from the sun.
Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield SPF 50 (small)
What sunscreen should I look for if I have oily skin?
For oily skin, Dr. Garshick recommends looking for an oil-skin sunscreen to prevent clogged pores.
Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen SPF 50 (small)
Jeanine Downie, MD is a board-certified dermatologist licensed in California, New Jersey, and New York. Currently, she practices at Image Dermatology P.C. in New Jersey and specializes in cosmetic dermatology, laser and dermatologic surgery, and laser treatments, among other areas.
Marina Peredo, MD is an NYC-based, board-certified dermatologist and the founder of Skinfluence, a practice offering a customized approach to cosmetic surgery. Previously, she served as a primary investigator in several FDA clinical trials.