How to Choose the Best Sunscreen for You

Top dermatologists share their wisdom on ingredients and SPF levels—plus how much to use, how often to reapply and more.

It’s that sunscreen time of year, and you know it’s important to lotion up to protect your skin. But with so many options to choose from, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

Worry no more.

With the following expert-approved information, you’ll know exactly what to look for.

Get the scoop on the right ingredients
There are two main types of sunscreen on the market: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens—which contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide and are often referred to as “mineral” sunscreens—protect you by sitting on top of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays.

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand—which contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzene and homosalate—work by absorbing the sun’s rays.

At the end of the day, both are equally effective, says Adam Friedman, MD, a dermatologist at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Physical sunscreens tend to last slightly longer when you’re in direct UV light and are less likely to cause burning or irritation, which can be a side effect of some chemical sunscreens. But even newer, micronized versions of physical blockers can leave a whitish cast on the skin and they can rub or sweat off more easily than chemical sunscreens.

If you do opt for a chemical sunscreen, make sure that you buy one with at least three sunscreen ingredients. “If you use a chemical product with multiple filters, it’s less likely that one of those ingredients will be at levels high enough to cause irritation,” explains Dr. Friedman.

You can also opt for a sunscreen that contains both physical and chemical blockers. Although there’s no research that these are any more effective, “you do have the advantage of hitting UV rays at every level,” says Friedman.

You may also have read about safety concerns surrounding chemical UV filters like oxybenzone, but most studies in humans haven’t shown any adverse effects, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

The same is true for the inactive ingredient retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A). An analysis published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found no evidence that using this substance in sunscreen causes cancer in humans. That said, pregnant women may want to avoid using sunscreens with retinyl palmitate out of an abundance of caution.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, is taking steps to better understand how the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens affect our health. In a small May 2019 study conducted by the FDA and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 24 participants were asked to apply one of four commercially available sunscreens—two sprays, a lotion and a sunscreen—four times per day, over 75 percent of their body, which falls along the guidelines for maximum daily usage.

Researchers found that four active ingredients in these chemical sunscreens—avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule—were absorbed into the blood at levels that exceed a threshold that the FDA uses to determine when further safety testing is needed. This comes just months after the FDA proposed guidelines to strengthen the regulatory requirements for sunscreens sold in the U.S.

The FDA stresses that the study results do not mean that these ingredients are unsafe—more research is needed to find out the effects of repeated use. In the meantime, they advise people to continue wearing sunscreen.

Figure out which type is best for you
Sunscreens now come in many forms—creams, lotions, gels, sticks and sprays. In general, creams are good for people with very dry skin, especially around their faces. Lotions are better for large areas like your chest, back or legs, especially since lotions tend to feel lighter and less greasy than creams. Gels are best for hairy areas, like your scalp or a man’s legs or chest. Sticks are useful for applying around delicate areas such as your eyes.

Sprays are also a good idea but can be trickier. “We don’t really know how much spray is enough to provide good UV protection,” says Friedman. “I tell patients to actually cup their hand and spray a puddle of sunscreen into it, then apply it like they would a gel or a lotion.”

This method of using spray sunscreen has another added advantage: you’ll be less likely to inhale it.

“The spray can irritate your upper airways, and we also don’t know how safe the ingredients are to breathe in, since there really haven’t been studies done looking at that,” explains Friedman. If you do spray, keep the nozzle close to your skin—no farther than about two centimeters away, he advises.

Make sure you’re applying—and reapplying—enough
Groups like the Skin Cancer Foundation and American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommend applying a full ounce of sunscreen to your body—the equivalent of a shot glass. In fact, research shows most people only apply a quarter to half of that amount, which means they aren’t getting the protection they need.

In reality, dermatologists say, an exact amount is hard to pin down.

“An ounce might be enough for a woman who is 5’2’’, but not for a man who is 6’3’’,” says David Leffell, MD, chief of dermatologic surgery at the Yale University School of Medicine. When applying sunscreen, you should put enough on to cover the entire area but “don’t apply it like icing on a cake,” he adds. “You should massage it into your skin until there’s no noticeable residue.”

If you’re still confused, the Skin Cancer Foundation says the average person should use anywhere from a quarter to a half of a bottle of sunscreen during a long day at the beach.

If you’re applying a stick to an area—for example, around your eyes—make sure you’ve swiped the spot at least four times, says Friedman. As for spray, there’s no good rule of thumb, but “you should be able to see the liquid on your skin,” he adds.

Remember to apply a lip balm with SPF to your lips as well, since you can also potentially get skin cancers on your kisser. You should also reapply sunscreen every two hours when you’re outdoors, or right after swimming or sweating.

Water resistance is a key feature to look for when shopping for sunscreen. Bear in mind, though, that even if the sunscreen says it is water-resistant, you still need to reapply it every time you get out of the pool or the ocean.

“All the water-resistant label means is that you can swim with the sunscreen on for 40 minutes or 80 minutes before the chemicals in it become ineffective,” explains Friedman. “It’s also likely that it’s been removed from the skin by water or sweat.”

Use an SPF of at least 30
SPF—or sun protection factor—measures a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB rays from damaging your skin. Groups like the AAD recommend wearing an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. An SPF of 50 blocks 98 percent. But while that may not seem like a big difference, “even that little amount can have an effect if you are very fair-skinned or have other risk factors for skin cancer,” says Friedman.

There’s another reason to go with a higher SPF: Many sunscreens don’t actually meet their labeled SPF level.

Such was a finding from testing of sunscreens by Consumer Reports (CR). The group, like the AAD, recommends using products with SPF levels of at least 30. In order to maintain a margin of error in case a product doesn’t contain its claimed SPF, CR advises choosing sunscreen with SPF levels of at least 40.

Just keep in mind that whatever the SPF, all sunscreens last around the same amount of time. It’s important to reapply at least every two hours—possibly more often, depending on your skin type and the activity you’re performing—and always after swimming or sweating.

When buying sunscreen, it’s also important to make sure that the label says “broad-spectrum.” This means that it also protects against UVA rays, which—although they cause less burning—have also been linked to skin cancer. Sunscreens billed as broad-spectrum are also required to provide “proportional” protection, which means that a product with an SPF of 30, for example, must have a comparable level of protection against UVA.

Don’t just rely on sunscreens
In addition to coating your bare skin, you can avoid sun protection miscues by gearing up with the following items:

Sunglasses: These won’t just prevent you from developing skin cancer on your eyeballs (which can happen), they also reduce your chances of developing vision-threatening conditions later in life, such as cataracts or macular degeneration. Wear sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB light (which should be noted on the glasses’ label.)

Hat: A hat with at least a 3-inch brim can block as much as half of all UVB rays from your delicate eye area, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. A hat also does double duty by offering protection in places where it’s hard to apply sunscreen, like your scalp, ears and the back of your neck.

Sun-protective clothing: When you were growing up, your parents may have dressed you in a white T-shirt when you were swimming to help prevent sunburn. But a lightweight wet T-shirt only provides an SPF of about 3. When you’re going to be at the pool or beach, consider buying high-UPF swimwear, which offers the same protection as sunscreen. Or you can increase your clothes’ UPF on your own by washing them with a special laundry additive that contains sunscreen, like Sun Guard’s Rit, which provides protection for up to 20 washings.

Medically reviewed in May 2019. Updated in May 2019.

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