What's the Best Sunscreen?
Wondering what to wear this summer? Get the latest facts before you buy your next sunscreen.

Choosing a sunscreen isn't as simple as it used to be.

The next generation of sunscreens is just hitting the market -- including L'Oreal's Anthelios SX and products containing Helioplex -- designed to offer fuller protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Given all the new options, how do you know which is the best sunscreen for you?

"For most people, trying to compare one sunscreen to another can be complicated," says David J. Leffell, MD, professor of dermatology and surgery at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.

While choosing the best sunscreen is important, perhaps even more crucial is using it correctly -- something a lot of us don't do, says Henry W. Lim, MD, chair of the department of dermatology at the Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit. So before you plop down on the lawn chair -- or take the kids to the beach -- here are the sunscreen facts.

Finding the Best Sunscreen

Sunscreens help shield you from the sun's dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays in two ways. Some work by scattering the light, reflecting it away from your body. Others absorb the UV rays before they reach your skin.

A few years ago, choosing a good sunscreen meant you just looked for a high sun protection factor (SPF) -- which rates how well the sunscreen protects against one type of cancer-causing UV ray, ultraviolet B (UVB.) "SPF refers to blockage of UVB rays only," says Leffell.

Research soon showed that ultraviolet A rays (UVA) also increase skin cancer risk. While UVA rays don't cause sunburn, they penetrate deeply into skin and cause wrinkles. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that up to 90% of skin changes associated with aging are really caused by a lifetime's exposure to UVA rays.

The New Broad-Spectrum Sunscreens

So which is the best sunscreen for you? Clearly, you'll want a sunscreen with broad-spectrum or multi-spectrum protection for both UVB and UVA. Ingredients with broad-spectrum protection include benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate), sulisobenzone, salicylates, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone (Parsol 1789) and ecamsule (Mexoryl SX).

SPF 15 or higher for UVB protection. The SPF factor rates how effective the sunscreen is in preventing sunburn caused by UVB rays.  If you'd normally burn in 10 minutes, SPF 15 multiplies that by a factor of 15, meaning you could go 150 minutes before burning.

For the vast majority of people, SPF 15 is fine, Leffell tells WebMD. But people who have very fair skin, a family history of skin cancer, or conditions like lupus that increase sensitivity to sunlight should consider SPF 30 or higher.
Keep in mind that the higher the SPF, the smaller the increased benefit: contrary to what you might think, SPF 30 isn't twice as strong as SPF 15. While SPF 15 filters out 93% of UVB, SPF 30 filters out 97%, only a slight improvement.

UVA protection. There is no rating to tell you how good a sunscreen is at blocking UVA rays, says Leffell. So when it comes to UVA protection, you need to pay attention to the ingredients.

Look for a sunscreen that contains at least one of the following, Leffell says: ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, or zinc oxide.  Any of those should do the trick.

Ecamsule. One newly approved ingredient that blocks UVA is ecamsule.  It's been available in Europe and Canada, as Mexoryl SX, since 1993. In the U.S., ecamsule is now sold in L'Oreal's Anthelios SX products. It isn't cheap. A 3.4 ounce tube -- barely enough for 4 full-body applications -- can run $30.

Avobenzone. Neutrogena's Helioplex isn't really a new ingredient; it's a "stabilized" version of a common UVA-blocker called avobenzone (or Parsol 1789). Unless it's stabilized, avobenzone breaks down when exposed to sunlight -- exactly what you don't want in a sunscreen. You'll find stabilized avobenzone in other sunscreens, too, like Active Photo Barrier Complex and Dermaplex.

Some of the excitement about these new products is advertising hype, says Leffell. For instance, any brand-name sunscreen that has avobenzone is stabilized. If you want to spend $30 on a bottle of sunscreen, go ahead. But you can get equally good protection for a lot less.

Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Less expensive options for UVA protection have been available for a long time, the experts tell WebMD. Old sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide used to make people look pale and ghostly, says Fairbrother. But newer manufacturing techniques have resolved the problem, she says.

Water and sweat resistance. If you're going to be exercising or in the water, it's worth getting a sunscreen resistant to water and sweat.

But understand what this really means. The FDA defines water resistant sunscreen as meaning that the SPF level stays effective after 40 minutes in the water. Very water resistant means it holds after 80 minutes of swimming. These sunscreens are in no way water-proof, so you'll need to reapply them regularly if you're taking a dip.

A brand you like. Even if a brand is recommended by all the experts, if you don't like it, you're not going to use it, says Karrie Fairbrother, RN, president-elect of the Dermatology Nurses Association. Personal preference is really important.

Kid-friendly sunscreen. The sensitive skin of babies and children is easily irritated by chemicals in adult sunscreens, so avoid sunscreens with para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and benzephenones like dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone. Children's sunscreens use ingredients less likely to irritate the skin, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Unlike chemical ingredients, these protect babies' skin without being absorbed, Fairbrother says.

For kids 6 months or older, look for a sunscreen designed for children with an SPF of 15 or higher. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under 6 months be kept out of the sun altogether.

Sunscreen for skin problems or allergies. People who have sensitive skin or skin conditions like rosacea may also benefit from using sunscreens designed for children. Go for titanium dioxide or zinc oxide instead of chemicals like para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone. If you have skin irritation or allergies, avoid sunscreens with alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives.
Other sunscreens include moisturizers or other ingredients for people with dry or oily skin. As long as they meet the UVA and UVB requirements above, you can give them a try and see what works best.

How to Wear Sunscreen

While choosing the right sunscreen is important, it won't help much if you don't use it daily and correctly. Use these tips from the experts.

  • Apply the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go out in the sun. For woman, sunscreen can be applied under makeup. Use about 1 ounce (or 2 tablespoons) to cover your whole body. Don't skimp. A number of studies show that people simply don't use enough -- and only get 10% to 25% of the benefit. 
  • Don't forget the easy-to-miss spots, like the tips of your ears, your feet, the back of your legs, and, if you have one, your bald spot. Since your lips can also get sunburned, use a UV-protective lip balm and reapply it regularly, Fairbrother says.
  • No matter how long-lasting it's supposed to be, reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, and more often if you're sweating or getting wet.
  • Pay attention to the expiration date on the bottle. Sunscreen loses its effectiveness over time.
  • Wear sunscreen whenever you're out during the day -- and not only when it's hot and sunny. On a grey, overcast day, up to 80% of the dangerous UV rays still make it through the clouds. And during the winter, exposure to the sun's rays still can have damaging effects on your skin.

Sunscreen Isn't Enough

Some people have the impression that wearing sunscreen makes them fully protected against the sun's rays, Lim tells WebMD. But that's not the case. No sunscreen can do that.

No matter how high the SPF, no matter how thickly you slather it on, sunscreen will never fully protect you, experts say. This misunderstanding can be dangerous: people who think they're safe wind up spending too much time in the sun and raise their risk of skin cancer and other problems.

Even your clothes may not protect you. The average cotton T-shirt only has a pitiful SPF of 4, says Leffell.

So in addition to wearing good sunscreen, you still need to take other precautions:

  • Stay in the shade when possible.
  • Wear sunglasses.
  • Stay inside when UV radiation levels are highest, usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the U.S.
  • Wear a broad-brimmed hat.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, preferably with a UVP (ultraviolet protection rating) on the label. At least wear clothes that are dark and tightly woven, which offer a bit more protection.
  • Sunscreen works, says Leffell. But protecting yourself against ultraviolet rays requires a lot more than sunscreen alone. And remember that with sunscreen, you need to defend yourself against the sun's rays with both UVA and UVB protection.

I've done the research on sunscreen and compiled the best sunscreens on the market. Organic sunscreen, sport sunscreen, sunscreens safe enough for baby and the Best Sunscreen in the World.
Research shows 90 percent of wrinkles are caused by the sun's UVA light and sun damage is the #1 cause of premature aging in women and men. The best sunscreens provide broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB-sunburn) protection. Look for either zinc or titanium minerals in your sunscreen.

This is arguable, of course. But even dermatologists we've read tout La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL Lait SPF is the best sunscreen in the world. I've read many who say they use it themselves. Why does this sunscreen work so well? Because of the chemical "Mexoryl," well-known all over the world to protect skin from wrinkle-causing UVA rays. (Most sunscreens only protect against UVB rays). How good is Mexoryl? "It produces a product which gives us almost perfect protection against sunshine," said Dr. Vincent DeLeo, chairman of dermatology at Columbia University to ABC News.

La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL tinted creme was created just for the face. Unlike the lait version (No. 1 above), the tinted creme won't cast a white pall over the face. Plus, it's SPF 50+ so you know you're being protected. Dermatologists agree you need at least 30 SPF to protect the face from the sun. There's some debate over whether super high numbers can be trusted, but I have worn this religiously and have yet to sunburn. Downside: The price. At $47 this is pricey, but the product does go a long way and it's small enough to fit into a purse (sunscreen must be reapplied throughout the day if you are out in the sun). While I wish it was a little more product for the money, a few pea-sized dots will do you.

Best Body Sunscreen: California Baby No Fragrance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+

We told you about the best sunscreens for the face. But what about the body? California Baby products are organic and natural and aren't just for babies. It offers broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection and is also waterproof. I love that you won't get any bad chemicals or fragrances, which makes this sunscreen ideal for people with allergies and sensitivities to certain ingredients found in many storebought sunscreens.

Extra tip: Sunscreen isn't only for the face. We read in O magazine that dermatologists report seeing too many women with hands, necks and chests that looked 20 years older than their faces. These women were diligent to keep their faces out of the sun but forgot to protect their hands, necks and chests as well.

Best Facial Moisturizer with SPF: Dermagenics Sun Savvy Solar Shield

Dermagenics wins the best facial moisturizer with SPF round because it's not full of nasty chemicals that are absorbed into the skin, yet it still provides excellent protection from UVA and UVB rays. It is pricey. But when it comes to your skin and your health, it's worth it.
If you can't afford the $47 pricetag for Dermagenics, dermatologists frequently recommend Eucerin Extra Protective moisture lotion SPF 30 which combines sunscreen with moisturizer. It does not rate well on EWG's Skin Deep list, which is why it fell off my list this year, but if you must buy a product at a drugstore, it's a good bet.

Best Facial Moisturizer with SPF for Oily Skin: Aveda

Don't like those heavy creams for your face? Try an oil-free, noncomedogenic sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher. We hear good things about Dual Nature Face Protection SPF15 Skincare by Aveda 1.7oz.

Best Facial Moisturizer with SPF for All Skin Types -- L'Occitane

Moisturizers with SPF protection are great time savers. A great bet is L'Occitane Shea Butter Ultra Moisturizing Day Care SPF 20.

But be careful, it's very thick. Another great bet is Clarins Hydration-Plus Moisture Lotion SPF 15, which combines sunscreen with Clarins' all-time bestselling moisturizers.  A top favorite of dermatologists is Olay Total Effects UV Protection .

Best Tinted Moisturizers With SPF -- Laura Mercier

Tinted moisturizer is lighter than your average foundation but provides a soft coverage. It's great for women with almost flawless skin because it evens out skin tone without "cake face," otherwise known as "pancake makeup."
Foundations or tinted moisturizers with SPF ensures you are getting not only great coverage, but SPF as well. Hands down the best tinted moisturizer with SPF on the market is Laura Mercier.

John Masters Organics
 Named the best sunscreen by Natural Health magazine, this organic sunscreen is beloved for going on smoothly and leaving no residue. But it's best feature is it's sunblocking abilities without containing the harmful chemicals found in other sunscreens.

Alba Botanicals makes great organic products and their sunblock for kids is well regarded. They also have versions for adults, too.

Best Drugstore Sunscreen: Tropical Sands All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 50

This is a great organic, non-chemical sunscreen that passes the strict EWR Skin Deep tests.
The reviewers over at rave about Neutrogena's Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunblock. It goes on lightly, doesn't turn an oily face into a greasepit and best yet, it won't cast "ghost glow," the annoying white cast that some sunblocks give. Unfortunately, it does not rate as highly on EWR's Skin Deep panel, so I have moved it from 1st place to Honorable Mention.

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