By Lindsay Cohn
If there is one thing you should definitely, hands-down, no-question do for your skin this summer, it’s wear sunscreen. It’s one of our best defenses against ultraviolet exposure (in addition to wearing protective clothing, seeking out shade, and avoiding peak sun hours). But how do you know which sunscreens to trust and which are a bust?
Unfortunately, regulations in the US are far less stringent than those in Europe. According to the Environmental Working Group, nearly 75 percent of the more than 1800 products examined didn’t live up to their claims or contained red-flag ingredients, like oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. In other words, it’s up to consumers (like you!) to educate yourself and make smart sun decisions.
So, before heading outdoors this summer, here’s what you need to know about sunscreen — plus, our favorite picks for everyone and every body part.
3 Things to Know About Sunscreen
1. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens that are SPF 30 or higher.
First things first, we need to talk about ultraviolet radiation. There are two types: UVA, or long-wave, penetrates the deeper dermal layers and plays a significant role in photo-aging. UVB, or short-wave, effects the more superficial epidermal layers, causing redness and sunburn—both are linked to skin cancer.
SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, specifically refers to protection against UVB damage. And, yes, a higher SPF provides more protection against UVB damage. The problem? Even formulas with an SPF of 50 or higher don’t provide protection against UVA damage. Even worse, the higher number can give us a false sense of security, leading to overexposure.
So, what should you look for? The American Academy of Dermatology recommends broad-spectrum sunscreens that are SPF 30 or higher, since products labeled broad-spectrum guard against both UVA and UVB rays.
2. Choose physical or mineral-based sunscreens.
Sunscreens are divided into two camps: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens contain, well, chemicals, like oxybenzone, a potential estrogenic endocrine disruptor linked to reproductive and environmental concerns, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may accelerate sun damage. These ingredients penetrate skin, which means means greater exposure to toxins and a greater likelihood of irritation.
Physical or mineral-based sunscreens contain mineral agents, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are naturally broad-spectrum. These formulas sit on top of the skin, creating a physical shield that deflects the sun’s rays.
The takeaway? Opt for mineral sunscreens.
3. Just say no to sprays.
We know, we know: Sprays are so convenient! But, sprays are a no-no due to inhalation risks. Choose a lotion or cream instead and ask a friend, family member, or significant other to get your back.
5 Clean Plates-Approved Sunscreens
We road-tested a bevy of lotions and creams 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.
1. Best overall: Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense SPF 30
With zinc oxide, antioxidant-rich oils and algae extracts, this skin-loving lotion melts into skin to nourish and protect skin—without greasy residue.
2. Best bargain:Alba Botanica Fragrance Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
This creamy, unscented lotion for face and body is infused with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and moisturizing botanicals. It’s also biodegradable, reef-safe and gluten-free. And it won’t break the bank!
Buy it: Alba Botanica Fragrance Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30, $11
3. 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).
Buy it: Thinkbaby Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 30, $9
4. 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 zinc oxide for UVA/UVB protection. The best part? You can stash this portable stick virtually anywhere, leaving you zero excuse not to reapply.
Buy it: Badger All Season Face Stick SPF 35, $11
5. Best for sports: Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sport Stick Sunscreen Fragrance Free SPF 30
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 on clear.