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Sunscreen protects the skin from the sun’s harmful rays and can reduce a person’s risk of developing skin cancer. The best sunscreens will have a high SPF, block UVA and UVB rays, and include safe ingredients.

This article looks at what to consider when choosing a sunscreen, some of the best products available, and what else people can do to protect their skin.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22 per 100,000 people in the U.S. developed skin cancer in 2018. The American Academy of Dermatologists (AAD) states that skin cancer is one of the most common — and preventable — types of cancer. Wearing sunscreen is an accessible way to lower skin cancer risk.

The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that using 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 National Cancer Institute states that anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of age, gender, or skin tone. The Fitzpatrick skin typing system is useful for determining 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: 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: A water-resistant sunscreen can be a good option for water and sporting activities. By ensuring the sunscreen specifies how long the product is water-resistant, a person can be confident in knowing 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 product more than 3 years after purchase.

Furthermore, it is always best to choose a sunscreen with very high UVA protection and one that has no fragrance or essential oils. Fragrances can be an irritant that can cause rashes and red scaly patches on the skin.

Many studies, including this older 2010 study and this 2016 research, point out that fragrance is one of the top causes of allergic contact dermatitis, including essential oils and other fragrance variants, such as limonene.

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

Mineral 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:

The skin absorbs these chemicals, 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. Furthermore, the study looked at participants applying appropriate amounts of sunscreen to 75% of body surface area, which may not be typical for most people.

Learn more about common sunscreen myths and facts.

Sunscreens come in various formulations, from sprays and creams to gels and sticks, and which 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 apply. Moreover, to avoid inhalation, a person should consider checking the wind direction before spraying.
  • Sticks: Ideal for swiping across the face or smaller body areas, sticks are often useful when a person is on the go.
  • Gel: Gel sunscreens offer an alternative to thick oils or creams. Individuals may also notice that the skin absorbs gels more easily on hairier parts of the body, such as the scalp or chest.
  • Cosmetic: Moisturizers with an added SPF can help 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, like sunscreen.

Medical News Today chooses products that meet the following criteria:

  • Price: MNT chooses products available for a wide range of budgets.
  • Ingredients: MNT chooses products that clearly list all ingredients.
  • Skin concerns: Where appropriate, MNT selects products that target a specific skin concern, such as dryness, oiliness, or aging.
  • Safety: MNT chooses products that contain ingredients safe for topical use.
  • Reputable: MNT selects products from businesses that adhere to industry best practices.

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

Medical News Today follows a strict product selection and vetting process. Learn more here.

Below is a list of 10 of the best sunscreens a person can consider.

Best for acne-prone skin: Elta MD UV Clear Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 46

Price: $39

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

The manufacturer writes that the Elta MD facial sunscreen is fragrance, oil, and paraben-free and comes in a tinted or untinted formulation. The version with the tint contains iron oxides, which the company claims can further help protect the skin against the sun’s visible rays.

It also contains niacinamide, which can help with rosacea and dark spots.

This sunscreen is not water-resistant and contains octinoxate, an ingredient that some people are allergic to or may prefer to avoid.

Best refillable sunscreen: Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30

Price: $41.80

The manufacturer designed this pink-tinted sunscreen to leave no chalky residue and be suitable for people with uneven skin tone and hyperpigmentation.

The company claims that it is vegan, gluten-, and cruelty-free. The oil-free formula contains niacinamide to smooth skin tone and hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin.

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

However, this product is more expensive than other options and has a lower SPF. People should ensure that they do not under-apply this sunscreen as this will reduce protection from UVA rays.

This product also contains fragrance, essential oils, and colors, which may not be suitable for some users.

Best for Black skin: Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 30

Price: $18.99

The manufacturer specifically formulated this product for dark skin. Positive reviews on the company website note that this product leaves no visible streaks on the skin.

It contains several natural ingredients, including avocado and jojoba, and chemicals to absorb the sun’s UV rays. It contains avobenzone to protect against UVA rays.

Black Girl Sunscreen is vegan, cruelty-free, and reef-safe, according to the company, which means that it does not contain chemicals that can cause coral bleaching.

Best for outdoor activities: Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist Sunscreen SPF 100

Price: $11.99

This product may suit people who prefer a spray or do a lot of outdoor physical activities. This sunscreen is SPF 100, the highest SPF available to buy.

Positive reviews mention the easy-to-hold bottle and dry-feel finish. This higher SPF product means a person may be better protected if they do not apply the recommended amount compared to lower SPF products.

This Banana Boat sunscreen is water- and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes, according to the company.

Some buyers have mentioned that this product causes them to sweat more and can sting if it comes into contact with the eyes.

Best for sensitive skin: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Zinc Oxide Sunscreen SPF 50

Price: $24.99

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

La Roche-Posay states that this travel-sized sunscreen has a non-greasy finish and broad-spectrum protection. The company also writes that it is resistant to sweat and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

However, some buyers say the texture resembles a paste and requires a lot of rubbing to help it absorb. Others mention that it leaves a white cast on the skin.

Best for oily or combination skin: Cetaphil Pro Oil Control Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30

Price: $17.99

This sunscreen reduces shine and absorbs oil. The company formulated this product for people with oily or combination skin.

It contains ceramides, dimethicone, and panthenol for soothing the skin and repairing its barrier.

It does not contain fragrances or essential oils.

Reviewers state that they like the product’s lightweight, matte finish and quick-drying formula. However, it is not water-resistant.

The product uses avobenzone to protect the skin against UVA rays.

Best water-resistant stick: Cetaphil Sheer Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 50

Price: $8.17

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

The manufacturer writes that its formulation is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, making it a good choice for people who swim or enjoy water sports.

It contains vitamin E and paraffin and is free of fragrance and chemical sunscreens.

However, it contains beeswax, which may not be suitable for people following a vegan lifestyle.

Positive reviews mention that it is to apply the stick to tricky areas, such as the ears, nose, and around the eyes.

However, many buyers point out that this sunscreen has a dry, matte white cast finish, which may not be ideal for everyday use.

Best gel sunscreen: Neutrogena Hydro Boost SPF 30

Price: $32.37–42.57

According to Neutrogena, this gel-based sunscreen is water-resistant, oil-free, and does not block pores and cause blackheads. It comes in a pack of three bottles, and a person can choose between SPF 30 or 50.

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

The non-greasy texture may suit those with oily skin or people applying the product to the scalp or areas with facial or body hair.

However, the fragrance and dyes used in the formula may not be suitable for those with sensitive skin.

Best for babies: Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen SPF 50

Price: $53.44

This broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen contains zinc oxide. The manufacturers write that this creates a barrier between a baby’s skin and the sun’s harmful rays.

Neutrogena also states that this lotion is hypoallergenic and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

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

Overall, online reviews are positive, with users writing that it offers effective protection from the sun. However, many users noted that it is very thick and can leave a white residue on the skin.

Best reef-safe sunscreen: Thinksport Kids Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+

Price: $15.99

Thinksport formulated this sunscreen especially for children. It is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, making it a suitable choice for the beach or pool.

The company writes that it is vegan, reef-safe, BPA-free, and provides broad-spectrum protection from the sun’s rays. It goes on to state that this product’s formula is biodegradable and does not contain chemicals known to be harmful to coral reefs.

This product also contains aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, and dimethicone, which can be soothing and hydrating.

Reviews are generally positive for this product. However, some users note that they experienced sunburn despite applying the product regularly.

The table below compares each of the sunscreen products included in this article.

SPFFormulationTypeFragrance- and essential oil-freeVolume (oz.)Price
Elta MD UV Clear Facial Sunscreen46lotioncombinationyes1.7 oz.$39
Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor30lotionchemicalno1.7 oz.$41.80
Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 3030lotionchemicalyes3 oz.$18.99
Banana Boat Sport Performance100spraychemicalno6 oz.$11.99
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Zinc Oxide Sunscreen50creammineralyes3 oz.$24.99
Cetaphil Pro Oil Control Moisturizing Lotion30lotionchemicalyes4 oz.$17.99
Cetaphil Sheer Mineral Sunscreen Stick50stickmineralyes0.5 oz.$8.17
Neutrogena Hydro Boost30 or 50lotionchemicalno3 oz.$32.37–42.57
Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen50lotionmineralyes3 oz.$53.44
Thinksport Kids Safe Sunscreen SPF50creammineralyes3 oz.$15.99

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

  • Avoiding direct sunlight during peak hours: Staying indoors or in the shade when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., will protect against harmful rays. This applies all year round, even in winter or when it is cold, rainy, or cloudy.
  • 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.

Below are answers to the top frequently asked questions about sunscreen.

What is the safest sunscreen?

The American Association of Dermatology (AAD) states the safest sunscreens are ones that offer:

  • SPF 30 or higher
  • broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays
  • water-resistance

A person may also wish to consider choosing sunscreens that do not contain fragrance, essential oils, or ingredients that may cause skin reactions or acne.

What SPF is best for your face?

A 30 SPF sunscreen or higher will offer the best protection for a person’s face. A person should check whether their chosen sunscreen is chemical or mineral, as mineral sunscreens can be gentler on sensitive skin. Additionally, some sunscreens may be non-comedogenic, meaning they will reduce the risk of blocked pores. This type of sunscreen may be suitable for people prone to acne.

Which is better: sunscreen or sunblock?

Both sunscreen and sunblock are effective at protecting a person’s skin from the sun. However, a person should also consider other forms of protection, including staying out of the sun, seeking shade, and wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses with UV protection.

A person should also be mindful of spending time around water, snow, and sand in intense sunlight, as they can reflect the sun’s rays and increase a person’s chance of sunburn.

Everyone, regardless of skin color or tone, should use broad-spectrum sunscreen every day. The type of sunscreen a person chooses will depend on their skin type, the ingredients they wish to avoid, the types of activities they will be doing, and the type of sunscreen they prefer to use.

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