Woman putting on suncream, Hermosa Beach, California, USA

The Best Sunscreens to Protect Your Skin from Aging, According to Dermatologists

The best sunscreen, according to dermatologists, is the one that you will actually wear. But with so many choices, how do you choose a sunscreen? We break it down: physical or mineral sunscreens vs. chemical sunscreens; the SPF number you should be wearing. Plus, lotion, spray, stick and powder sunscreen recs!
Brierley Horton, M.S., RD
June 08, 2021
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Soaking up those warm summer sun rays might feel good, but it raises your risk of skin cancer-you know this. Those UV rays also can accelerate how old we look.

"UV rays produce free radicals in our skin that can lead to skin cancers, but this damage also degrades the elastin and collagen fibers in our skin leading to sagging and wrinkles," says Lauren C. Hughey, M.D., of Renew Dermatology and Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. UVA rays are the biggest offenders. "They're especially damaging to skin and promote photo-aging, which includes sagging and wrinkles, as well as discoloration (light and dark areas and reds)."

If you plan to spend some quality time outside this summer-or really any other day of the year, hot or cold-sunscreen is a tool you need to have in your arsenal. It's not a perfect shield, but it'll at least lessen the damage that the sun can inflict.

That said, there are two types of sunscreen-physical or mineral sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. Physical sunscreens literally reflect the sun's rays (UVA and UVB) from your skin. "Physical sunscreens are made from ground up rocks. In fact, they're used in cosmetics all the time because they have attractive qualities," says Chris Adigun, a dermatologist practicing in Chapel Hill, NC and a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. What's nice about physical sunscreens is that they're effective immediately-they don't need to be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun. "They can be a little opaque and not as cosmetically elegant, but they're incredibly low allergenicity," says Adigun.

Chemical sunscreens have to be absorbed by the skin and change into their active state before they're effective and that takes about 15 to 30 minutes. "Then those sunscreen molecules absorb the UV rays when you're out in the sun and that's what protects your skin," says Adigun.

Fortunately, it's incredibly simple to ID a chemical versus physical sunscreen. "Turn it over and look at the ingredients. With mineral sunscreens, there's only 2 ingredients: zinc or titanium dioxide. If there are a lot of big words, it's likely a chemical sunscreen," says Adigun.

Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen: Which Is Better?

"As long as the sunscreen that my patient chooses is broad-spectrum, I tell them to wear the sunscreen that they like," says Adigun. "Both types are proven effective in protecting your skin." Some dermatologists, however, encourage at least some physical blocking ingredient in a sunscreen. "I always recommend sunscreens that have a physical blocker like zinc or titanium," says Hughey. "I would prefer my patients wear a SPF 50 with zinc than a SPF 100 without zinc."

Also, your skin type might prefer one version over another. This is why trial and error and sticking to what you personally like is so valuable.

If you have pigmented skin, Adigun says that chemical sunscreen is often preferred. "It can be challenging to find a physical sunscreen that doesn't make people with pigmented skin look gray or blue."

And if you have sensitive skin, or struggle with rosacea or eczema, you'll do better with mineral sunscreens. The chemical sunscreen might burn or sting a little.

5 Top Tips for Buying Sunscreen

There are a lot of choices on store shelves, and it goes beyond just physical or chemical sunscreen. These dermatologist tips will help you navigate all the choices so that you can get the best sun protection possible.

  1. Look for the broad-spectrum stamp. You want your sunscreen to be broad spectrum so that you're covered as thoroughly covered as possible. "For chemical sunscreen, they have to use many different chemicals to be considered 'broad-spectrum' because each chemical blocks a portion of the UVA or UVB spectrum," explains Adigun. Physical sunscreens are inherently broad-spectrum, blocking the full UVA and UVB spectrum.
  2. Check the SPF. At minimum you want SPF 30, or greater. "That's what the American Academy of Dermatology and Skin Cancer Foundation both recommend. There's a big difference between SPF 15 and SPF 30," says Adigun, "But above 30 there is an incrementally smaller increase in protection," adds Hughey.
  3. Kids don't have to have kid versions. "Kid brands aren't usually any different," says Adigun. "Big sunscreen companies sell so-called 'kid-friendly' sunscreens that contain chemical ingredients." It's okay to use a chemical sunscreen on kids (they just must be 6 months or older), but keep in mind that chemical sunscreens are more likely to sting if they get into eyes, on eyelids or other sensitive skin areas.
  4. Using a spray? Shake it before applying. If your spray sunscreen contains zinc, be sure to shake the bottle prior to spraying. Zinc is a heavier molecule, so shaking will make sure the zinc doesn't settle at the bottom of the canister.
  5. Don't neglect protective clothing. OK so this isn't a sunscreen buying tip per se, but it falls into the realm of physical sun blockers. We all know that wearing a hat or a rash guard can be a sun-lovers' best ally. And clearly dermatologists agree: "Using SPF 30 plus protective clothing is more effective than SPF 100 and direct sunlight. Also protective clothing never wears off," says Adigun.

The Best Everyday Sunscreens to Protect Your Skin

Still don't want to sift through the options on store shelves or Amazon? We've got you! Here are 8 specific recommendations. Forewarning-don't be alarmed at the price tag on these items. If you want a quality product that will make a difference in the long run, you have to be willing to pay a little extra for it.

Everyday Face Sunscreens

  1. ISDIN Eryfotona Ageless Tinted Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50: "My favorite everyday face sunscreen, this ISDIN product is tinted and blends beautifully on all skin types," says Adigun.
ISDIN Eryfotona Ageless Tinted Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50
$66.00
SHOP IT
Amazon
  1. EltaMD UV Elements Tinted Face Moisturizer: "This is my favorite lotion sunscreen for the face because it is a purely mineral (no chemical sunscreens) sun protection, so it won't sting your eyes. And the tint also ensures you don't have a ghostly appearance," says Hughey.
EltaMD UV Elements Tinted Face Moisturizer
$36.50
SHOP IT
Amazon

Favorite Sunscreen Spray

  1. EltaMD UV Aero Full-Body Spray Sunscreen: EltaMD makes mineral only and combination mineral/chemical sprays. This is a zinc spray. "This version of Elta's spray sunscreen is my favorite because it is one of the few sprays that contain zinc," says Hughey. Adigun also recommends this spray: "You never inhale it. It does not burn the eyes, but you can see it. Once you rub it in, it's translucent, even on pigmented skin. The spray is so easy to use and it doesn't smell."
EltaMD UV Aero Full-Body Spray Sunscreen
$34.50
SHOP IT
Amazon

Favorite Sunscreen Lotion

  1. EltaMD UV Active Mineral Sunscreen Lotion: "For sports and other activities, I like Elta's UV Active because it's zinc-only and won't burn your eyes when you sweat," says Adigun.
EltaMD UV Active Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
$29.50
SHOP IT
Amazon

For Your Car or Purse

  1. ISDIN Mineral Brush Powder: Powder sunscreens have a lot of utility. "Brush on powder sunscreens are heat-stable and they never expire. You can leave it in your car, your pool bag, etc. These go a long way for my golfers and tennis players," says Adigun.
ISDIN Mineral Brush Powder
$55.00
SHOP IT
Amazon

For The Kids

  1. Beautycounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 30: "I prefer mineral sunscreens for kids' faces because they won't sting their eyes, and they give them broader and more effective UV protection," says Hughey. This mineral sunscreen stick is one that school-age kids can learn to apply themselves, and older kids can easily take with them on-the-go.
Beautycounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 30
$21.00
SHOP IT
beautycounter.com
  1. Colorescience Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush: "This powder zinc sunscreen won't separate when it gets hot and is easy to brush on kids, especially when they resist lotion sunscreens," says Hughey.
Colorescience Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush
$45.00
SHOP IT
Amazon

For Hairlines, Part-lines, and Mens' Scalps

  1. Colorescience Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush: "The applicator is great for entire scalps in men and the part-line in women," says Hughey.
Colorescience Total Protection Sheer Matte SPF 30 Sunscreen Brush
$45.00
SHOP IT
Amazon