By Lindsay Cohn
You already know SPF is a summer essential. Ultraviolet exposure increases your risk of skin cancer, sun damage and aging. But not all sunscreens are created equal. So how do you know which formulas to trust and which are a bust?
Regulations in the US are far less stringent than those in Europe. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 11th Annual Sunscreen Guide, nearly 75 percent of the more than 880 products examined didn’t live up to their claims or contained red-flag ingredients, like oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. Meaning it’s up to consumers (like you!) to educate yourself and make smart sun decisions. Before heading outdoors this summer, here’s what you need to know about sunscreens and which are best:
UNDERSTANDING UVA AND UVB
There are two types of ultraviolet radiation: UVA (longwave) penetrates the deeper dermal layers and plays a significant role in photoaging, and UVB (shortwave), which effects the more superficial epidermal layers, causing redness and sunburn—both are linked to skin cancer.
SPF (sun protection factor) refers to a formula’s ability to protect against UVB damage. Products labeled broad-spectrum guard against both UVA and UVB rays. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends opting for a water-resident, broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher. It’s important to note that, in the case of sun protection, higher doesn’t mean better. The FDA is considering nixing high SPFs (above 50), calling them “inherently misleading.” So best to stick to SPF 30 or 50—and be sure to reapply every two hours, as well as after swimming and sweating.
CHEMICAL VS. MINERAL-BASED SUNSCREEN
SPFs are divided into two camps: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens contain worrisome chemicals, like oxybenzone (a potential estrogenic endocrine disruptor linked to reproductive and environmental concerns), octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate and retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A that may accelerate sun damage). These active ingredients penetrate skin, absorbing the sun’s rays; this means greater exposure to toxins and a greater likelihood of irritation.
Physical (ie: mineral-based) sunscreens contain mineral agents, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are naturally broad spectrum (score well in the EWG’s annual ratings). These formulas sit on top of the skin, creating a physical shield that deflects the sun’s rays. Not only are they free of toxic ingredients, but because they aren’t absorbed into skin, these safer formulas tend to be less irritating.
Simply put: Skip the chemicals and slather on nontoxic sunscreen.
MUST-TRY MINERAL FORMULAS
We road-tested a bevy of lotions and creams (sprays are a no-no due to inhalation risks) that received the EWG stamp of approval. Here, the safe—paraben-, phthalate- and synthetic fragrance-free—and effective, mineral formulas that stood up to the heat—and by that, we mean the sun’s harmful rays.
BEST FOR FACE: Badger All Season Face Stick SPF 35
This all-natural face formula is packed with nourishing shea and cocoa butters, extra-virgin olive oil and beeswax, plus 22.4 percent non-nano zinc oxide for UVA/UVB protection. The best part? You can stash this portable stick virtually anywhere, leaving you zero excuse not to reapply. EWG score: 1. (Available online; $9.99 for .65 oz)
Beyond offering broad spectrum protection, this oil-free formula gets bonus points for soothing aloe vera, hydrating hyaluronic acid and free radical-fighting green tea. Plus, we love the bright citrus scent. EWG score: 1. (Available online; $36 for 5 fl oz)
This water-resistant sport stick is packed with skin-safe, non-nano zinc oxide and nourishing oils. And unlike the gloopy white zinc formulas of the past, it goes clear.
BEST FOR KIDS: Thinkbaby Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 30
This mom-approved, easy-to-apply stick offers water-resistant, broad spectrum protection for babies six months and older (the American Academy of Pediatrics advises infants under six months should avoid sun exposure). EWG score: 1. (Available online; $8.99 for .64 oz)
This creamy, unscented lotion—for face and body—is infused with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and moisturizing botanicals (sunflower seed, grapeseed and jojoba seed oils, aloe vera and vitamin E). It’s also biodegradable, reef-safe and gluten-free. And at $9, this budget-friendly, drugstore buy won’t break the bank! EWG score: 2. (Available online; $9 for 4 fl oz)
BEST OVERALL: Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Defense SPF 30
Starring zinc oxide, antioxidant-rich oils (marula and raspberry seed) and extracts (sunflower sprout and algae), this skin-loving lotion melts into skin to nourish and protect against UV and environmental—sans greasy residue. EWG score: 1. (Available online; $34 for 3 fl oz)