Between the seemingly endless varieties of sunscreen sprays, sticks and creams available, it can be hard to figure out which is the right sunscreen for me?
Like a good sunblock keeping sunburn away, M Physicians board-certified dermatologists Ronda Farah, MD, and Ingrid Polcari, MD, have you covered.
In this guide:
- How Sunscreen Works
- Choosing the right sunscreen strength
- Should I use sunscreen cream, spray or stick?
- Sunscreen for sensitive skin
- Sunscreen for darker or lighter skin types
- What about sunscreen for kids?
- The best time to apply sunscreen
- Additional sun-protection tips to keep in mind
First, how sunscreen works
There are two main kinds of sunscreens available on the market today, Dr. Farah notes: physical blockers and chemical blockers.
- Physical blockers work by deflecting the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, which are what lead to sunburn. “These blockers typically have ingredients called ‘zinc oxide’ or ‘titanium oxide,’” Dr. Farah explains. They also tend to be whiter and pastier in color and texture, which could leave a little white residue on the skin.
- Chemical blockers work by absorbing the sun’s rays and most often contain ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Dr. Farah says that these kinds of blockers tend to be easier to rub into the skin without any residue. “If you look at the list of ingredients on the back of the tube or bottle, these will usually be the first ones listed.” Dr. Farah says.
Choosing the right sunscreen strength
Sun protection factor, commonly known as SPF, tells you how much of the sun’s UVB rays that sunscreen will keep from reaching your skin.
“It’s important to know that if you pick a higher SPF number sunscreen, you’re not necessarily doubling the protection, but you are still increasing your protection,” Dr. Farah explains.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use a sunscreen with a SPF of 30 or higher, and Dr. Farah generally recommends her patients use a sunscreen that’s also labeled as “broad spectrum,” which means it blocks both UVB and UVA light. If you are going to be in or near water, opt for a sunscreen that says “water resistant,” and reapply immediately after swimming.
Should I use a sunscreen cream, spray or stick?
“We most often recommend patients use sunscreen creams,” Dr. Farah says, “Since creams have the most research supporting them.”
While convenient, sunscreen sprays can be flammable, so Dr. Farah recommends that those who use them take extra care. “You don’t want to inhale sunscreen spray, which is especially risky when you apply sunscreen to your face,” she says, “And, for that reason, sprays may not be super optimal for kids.”
As far as sunscreen sticks go, “It is not clear if they perform as well as creams and lotions, but they can be helpful if kids or others will not use anything else.” The sticks are less messy, but some adults find them sticky.
Sunscreen for sensitive skin
Patients with sensitive skin should generally choose a physical blocker over a chemical one, according to Dr. Farah, since chemical blockers may be more irritable for sensitive skin types.
“You can easily tell if it’s a physical blocker, which lists either ‘zinc oxide’ or ‘titanium oxide’ on the label,” she says.
For patients with melasma or cosmetic concerns, Dr. Farah generally recommends a sunscreen that contains iron oxide, though it can sometimes be difficult to determine which ones contain it.
You can check the ingredients on the packaging, but it’s always worth reaching out to a board-certified dermatologist to confirm or even calling the brand’s customer service line to get the correct answer.
Patients with facial or body acne should also consider a sunscreen that says it is non-comedogenic or oil-free. Generally speaking, any sunscreen that says "face" on the label is usually best, according to Dr. Farah.
Sunscreen for darker or lighter skin types
Patients with a darker skin type may opt for a sunscreen with iron oxide, since it is tinted in color and more likely to protect against visible light which can discolor the skin, Dr. Farah says.
“There are also sunscreen gels on the market, which are helpful for blending in with all skin tones,” she says. Gels are typically more water-like in texture, but Dr. Farah recommends using them with caution since they contain alcohol, which can sting some skin types.
At the end of the day, Dr. Farah notes that trial and error may often be the best bet to see which kind of sunscreen works best for each patient’s skin.
Additionally, when you’re doing a test, “I always say ‘put your higher quality, generally a bit pricier sunscreens on your face and neck, and then the cheaper sunscreens elsewhere on your body,’” Dr. Farah explains. “It helps conserve the pricier options while still offering your skin the overall protection it needs.”
What about for kids?
Dr. Polcari, a pediatric dermatology specialist, says that physical blockers tend to be better for kids since they are more hypoallergenic and less chemical-reliant. She also recommends checking with a pediatrician.
“Parents should also look for a product that is SPF 30 of higher,” she says, “That baseline recommendation is similar for adults, too.”
The American Academy of Dermatology also advises against using sunscreen on infants younger than six months and to use sun protective clothing and shade instead.
The best time to apply sunscreen?
Many dermatologists recommend applying sunscreen 20 minutes before you head outside. Dr. Farah says one of the best things you can do to achieve that would be to incorporate sunscreen during your morning routine, like with a daily moisturizer that contains SPF.
“The 20 minute rule-of-thumb is ideal,” Dr. Farah says, “But life happens. So if you’re already out or if you don’t have 20 minutes to spare, put the sunscreen on anyway. It doesn’t mean it won’t work.”
Reapplication is also important, so remember to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, especially if you or your children are in water or are sweating.
Additional sun protection tips to keep in mind
Sunscreens do expire. Especially for chemical blockers, they often expire within the season. Keep an eye on the expiration date, which is most often on the flat part of the tube or on the back of the bottle.
There are many ways to prevent sunburn, and sunscreen is only one of them. Since sunscreen can be messy and expensive, Dr. Farah and Dr. Polcari recommend leaning toward protective clothing, like using swimwear and other sun-protective swim shirts, hats and bringing along a portable umbrella to provide shade, especially for children.
It’s also helpful to choose a park or pool with lots of shade, and plan outdoor activities in either the morning or late afternoon when the sun’s UV rays are not as high, Dr. Polcari says.
And, as always, both Dr. Farah and Dr. Polcari recommend talking to your doctor or a board-certified dermatologist if you have any questions or concerns about the condition of your skin.