Let’s get something out of the way: Sunblock is actually a year-round, nonnegotiable necessity. Jennifer Stein, a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health, says everyone should generally look for sunscreens with broad-spectrum coverage (which protects against UVB rays that cause burning and UVA rays that cause lasting damage) and an SPF of 30 or higher, and she notes that a high SPF doesn’t mean you can go hours without reapplying. You should always reapply sunscreen after every two hours in the sun, Stein says, even if you don’t burn easily. And when you’re shopping for sunscreen for your face, you’ll also want to be conscious of ingredients that address specific concerns like fine lines or acne.
This can be tricky, though, especially if you’re prone to breakouts or have sensitive skin. To find the best facial sunscreens to use, we asked Stein and 11 more dermatologists and skin-care professionals to recommend sunscreens for different skin types and activities. Read on for their favorites. (And remember: These sunscreens should be used in addition to hats and protective clothing, and wearing any of them doesn’t excuse you from spending time in the shade, since no sunscreen can completely prevent sun damage.)
Best overall | Best less expensive | Best mineral for acne-prone skin | Best chemical for acne-prone skin | Best mineral for oily skin | Best chemical for oily skin | Best mineral for dry skin | Best chemical for dry skin | Best mineral for mature skin | Best for sensitive skin | Best for exercising outdoors | Best mineral for swimming outdoors | Best chemical for swimming | Best for reapplication
What we’re looking for
SPF level: SPF—or sun protection factor—is the measure of how much UV radiation is required to cause a sunburn. The higher the SPF, the less likely you are to burn. It’s important to note that SPF doesn’t relate to time spent in the sun but rather references the amount of solar energy, so reapplication depends on the intensity of the sun. To put it simply: You need to reapply more often during the middle of the day, when the sun is at its peak, than, say, 9 a.m., when the sun is less intense. As we mentioned before, a high SPF doesn’t mean you can stop reapplying. Instead consider what your skin might need. Fairer skin needs a higher SPF to protect the skin, while darker skin tones (which have a built-in SPF of around 13.4) can use a lower SPF (think SPF 30) and still be protected. Another note: SPF only refers to UVB rays, but it’s best to look for a broad-spectrum sunblock, which will protect skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
Chemical or mineral: There are two types of sunscreen filters: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens use organic materials like oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, and octisalate to offer sun protection. These work by absorbing the sun’s rays, turning it into heat, and then releasing said heat through skin. This process takes about 15 minutes, so if you’re using chemical sunscreen filters, then you should be giving yourself at least that much time before heading outdoors. Because of their properties, chemical filters tend to be more cosmetically elegant and can be formulated into lightweight moisturizers and oils. There are a few drawbacks with chemical sunscreens. The first: They need to be applied more often than mineral sunscreens because they’re not photostable and break down upon exposure to UV light. Second, there have been studies suggesting that chemical sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate can seep into water while you swim and bleach coral reefs. Some chemicals have also been linked to endocrine disruption, although the data isn’t conclusive. Chemical sunscreens tend to be more irritating, as allergies to the active ingredients are more common.
Mineral sunscreens act as a physical barrier between you and UV rays, scattering the light when it hits your skin. There are two main ingredients that act as physical blockers—titanium and zinc oxide. These block a wide range of UV wavelengths and are photostable, meaning you don’t have to reapply as frequently (though you should still stick to the two-hour rule). Titanium and zinc oxide are also well tolerated by all skin types, including sensitive, and less likely to cause a reaction. The zinc oxide is also a key component in preventing hyperpigmentation, so it’s often recommended by dermatologists for patients with melasma or dark marks. In contrast to chemical sunscreens, physical filters aren’t as smooth or lightweight. They also tend to leave a white cast on skin, which makes it challenging for deeper skin tones. Mineral formulas have come a long way thanks to zinc nanoparticles, which rub in more easily.
To get the benefits of both, you can opt for a hybrid formula, which contains chemical and mineral filters.
Contains oxybenzone, homosalate, and octisalate: The CDC has been keeping an eye on oxybenzone for a few years now. The popular chemical has been shown to absorb through the skin, and there have been concerns that it’s an endocrine disruptor, after a few studies showed lower levels of testosterone in teenage boys and an increased risk of endometriosis in women. Currently the European Commission (which is known for having stricter regulations on cosmetics and skin care than the U.S.) caps the oxybenzone concentration at 6 percent, though all sunscreens don’t note the concentrations on the label, so it’s difficult to be sure. Homosalate and octisalate have also been identified as possible endocrine disruptors, but there have been less findings on these ingredients and their effects. If this concerns you, it’s definitely something to keep in mind; however, these ingredients (and other chemical sunscreen ingredients) haven’t at present been deemed unsafe for use.
Consistency: Consistency is important when it comes to sunscreen, because thickness can impact the way it sits on your skin. Someone looking for a formula that won’t feel heavy or greasy might opt for a lightweight formula, while someone with dry skin might want a thicker, more nourishing sunscreen.
Best overall sunscreen
SPF 46 | Mineral | Lightweight lotion
A longtime Strategist favorite, EltaMD UV Clear is also a top pick among dermatologists. Marnie Nussbaum likes it so much she wears it every day. Patricia Wexler of Wexler Dermatology says her patients love it because it doesn’t feel greasy like traditional sunscreen. In addition to being fragrance-free and noncomedogenic, EltaMD’s sunscreen is especially effective because it’s rich in antioxidants that help protect against skin-damaging free radicals, Wexler says. Nava Greenfield of the Schweiger Dermatology Group likes that it includes niacinamide, a vitamin-B3 derivative with anti-inflammatory properties that can fight breakouts. Jennifer MacGregor of Union Square Laser Dermatology appreciates that it’s “lightweight and oil-free, so it won’t clog pores,” and Dendy Engelman of Manhattan Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery points out that the formula contains “lactic acid, which will gently exfoliate the skin and regulate sebum buildup,” keeping breakouts at bay.