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Sunscreen protects the skin from the sun’s harmful rays and can reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. This article looks at what to consider when choosing sunscreen, some of the best products available, and what else people can do to protect the skin.

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An estimated 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of their lifetime, with most caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.

The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that using a sunscreen every day with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 may reduce the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by approximately 40% and melanoma by 50%.

The American Academy of Dermatologists states that anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of age, gender, or skin tone. The Fitzpatrick skin typing system is a useful way to determine skin type and its associated risk of developing skin cancer.

People who want to get the most from their sunscreen should ensure their chosen product includes the following:

  • Broad spectrum protection: This means that the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause skin cancer and premature aging.
  • SPF of 30 or higher: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. However, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), sunscreens with an SPF factor of 15 only filter out around 93% of UVB rays. SPFs of 30 filter out 97%, while SPFs of 50 or more filter out 98–99%. For this reason, the ACS recommends wearing an SPF of at least 30.
  • Water resistance: For water and sporting activities, a water resistant sunscreen can be a good option. By ensuring the sunscreen specifies how long the product is water resistant for, a person can be confident when to reapply.

The ACS advises always reading the label before purchasing sunscreen.

Sunscreens have a shelf life of around 2–3 years, and a person should check the expiration date before use as an expired product might not provide appropriate protection. The FDA recommends that users do not use a sunscreen more than 3 years after purchase.

Both chemical and physical (mineral) sunscreens use active ingredients to protect the skin.

Physical sunscreens use ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to provide a physical barrier to reflect and scatter ultraviolet rays.

Chemical sunscreens use chemicals to absorb rays, such as:

  • aminobenzoic acid
  • avobenzone
  • octocrylene
  • oxybenzone

These chemicals are absorbed into the skin, so they leave less of a visible residue than their mineral counterparts. A 2020 study found that absorbing the chemicals into the body could be harmful. However, more research is needed to understand the long-term impact on a person’s health.

Sunscreens come in a variety of formulations, from sprays and creams, to gels and sticks, and which one is right for a person may depend on factors including activity levels and skin type. A person may consider the following when picking a formulation:

  • Lotions: Best for covering large areas of skin, lotions absorb quickly and are less greasy than thicker creams. They may be better for people with oily skin.
  • Creams: Thicker and more moisturizing than a lotion, creams may suit people with dry skin, particularly on the face.
  • Sprays: Spray products can be a quick and efficient method of applying sunscreen to children. However, people may find it difficult to measure how much sunscreen they are applying. So as to avoid inhalation, a person should consider checking wind direction before spraying.
  • Sticks: Ideal for swiping across the face or for smaller body areas, sticks are often useful when a person is on the go.
  • Gel: Gel sunscreens offer a refreshing alternative to thick oils or creams. Individuals may also notice that gels are more easily absorbed on hairier parts of the body, such as the scalp or chest.
  • Cosmetic: Moisturizers with an added SPF can help to protect the skin on duller days, or when sun exposure is limited. However, to get the most protection, a person should apply these products regularly, just like sunscreen.

Below, we look at some sunscreens for a person to consider.

Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All information presented is purely research-based.

Elta MD UV Clear Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 46

Best for sensitive or acne-prone skin, and people with rosacea, this lightweight, clear formulation calms and protects the skin. It also contains hyaluronic acid to plump the skin’s appearance.

The Elta MD facial sunscreen is fragrance-, oil-, and paraben-free and comes in a tinted or untinted formulation.

Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30

Formulated for uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation, this pink-tinted sunscreen leaves no chalky residue.

It is vegan, gluten-, and cruelty-free. The oil-free formula contains niacinamide to smooth skin tone and hyaluronic acid to hydrate.

This product is refillable — a person can simply insert a new cartridge and continue using the original packaging.

Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 30

Specifically formulated for Black skin, positive reviews note that this product leaves no visible streaks on the skin.

It contains several natural ingredients, including avocado, jojoba, and sunflower oil, as well as chemicals to absorb the sun’s UV rays.

Black girl sunscreen is vegan, cruelty-free, and reef-safe, which means that it does not contain chemicals that can cause coral bleaching.

Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist Sunscreen SPF 100

Best for people who prefer a spray, or those who do a lot of outdoor physical activity, this sunscreen features the highest SPF available to buy.

Positive reviews mention the easy-to-hold bottle and dry-feel finish.

This Banana Boat sunscreen is water resistant and recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Zinc Oxide Sunscreen SPF 50

Containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, this paraben-free sunscreen may suit individuals with sensitive skin and those who prefer mineral sunscreens.

La Roche-Posay advises that this sunscreen has a nongreasy finish and broad-spectrum protection.

Cetaphil Pro Oil Control Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30

Best for people with oily or combination skin, this formulation reduces shine and absorbs oil.

Reviewer comments state that they like the product’s lightweight, matt finish and its quick-drying formula.

Cetaphil Sheer Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 50

The portable size and easy application of this stick sunscreen makes it easy to use when on the go.

The formulation is water resistant for up to 80 minutes, making it a good choice for people who are active in the water.

Positive reviewers comment on how easy it is to apply the stick to tricky areas, such as the ears, nose, and around the eyes.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost SPF 30

This gel-based sunscreen is water resistant, oil-free, and does not block pores and cause blackheads.

Positive reviews mention the ease of application, zero visible residues, and pleasant scent.

Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen SPF 50

This broad-spectrum, mineral sunscreen contains zinc oxide, creating a barrier between a baby’s skin and the sun’s harmful rays.

Hypoallergenic and water resistant for up to 80 minutes, it comes in a handy stick for top-ups when out and about.

A person can also use their Flexible Savings Account (FSA) or Health Savings Account (HSA) to purchase this product.

Thinksport Kids Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+

Formulated especially for children, this lightweight, water resistant sunscreen lasts for up to 80 minutes, making it a good choice for the beach or pool.

It is also reef-safe, BPA-free, and provides broad-spectrum protection from the sun’s rays.

In addition to applying an effective sunscreen at least every 2 hours, people who wish to protect their skin from sun damage might consider the following precautions:

  • Avoiding direct sunlight during peak hours: Staying in the shade when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., will protect against harmful rays.
  • Wearing appropriate clothing: Wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, and wide-brimmed hats can offer added sun protection when outdoors for extended periods.
  • Appropriate reapplication: Individuals should reapply sunscreen after contact with water or if sweating excessively.

Everyone, regardless of skin color or tone, should use broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. Formulations may differ depending on skin type, activities, and preferences.

Individuals should try to avoid the sun when it is at its hottest and protect the skin further with long-sleeved clothing and hats.