Ultimate Sunscreen Guide For Women

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Skin Care

Ultimate Sunscreen Guide For Women

What to look for in your summer sunscreen and our favorite choices

By Katie Weisman

It’s Summer! Just one of the four seasons in which you should be wearing sunscreen. Yep. Sunscreen should be part of your year-round skin care routine and obviously a real priority in the summer months when the sun is strongest.

Having just five or more sunburns in your lifetime doubles your risk for melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF). So choosing the sunscreen that works for you is key. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy because this beauty category is clogged with products, from major brands to independent players, just like in other sectors of the cosmeticsphere. It’s a critical choice, however, since skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world. In fact, the SCF says that 1 out of 5 Americans will develop a form of skin cancer by the time they turn 70.

What To Look For In Your Sunscreen
First, look for a “broad spectrum” sunscreen.

This kind of suncare has ingredients that protect against both UVA rays (which are deeply penetrating and account for 95% of all UV rays that hit earth) and UVB rays that damage the surface of the skin significantly enough to produce melanomas and other cancers as well as cause eye cataracts. 

Second, you’ll need to choose among a mineral sunscreen, a chemical sunscreen, or a mix of both.

A mineral sunscreen, with active ingredients of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, acts like a shield, battling off and scattering damaging sun rays. Depending on its formulation, this type of sunscreen can leave a white cast on the skin after application, or can feel super thick and not easily spreadable. Recent innovations, including varying forms of zinc oxide, such as a micronized version, however, tend to be more fluid, easy to apply, and transparent. Also, mineral sunscreens are often recommended for sensitive skin because the ingredients, notably the zinc oxide, is inherently soothing, and sits on top of the skin. 

On the other hand, a chemical sunscreen, which penetrates the skin, absorbs UV rays before they can do damage. If you opt for chemical, choose one that is ocean- and coral reef-friendly, meaning they exclude oxybenzone and octinoxate — sunscreens containing these ingredients have been banned by the state of Hawaii. The term “chemical” is tricky, however, since so many ingredients in sunscreen, like zinc oxide, are in fact chemicals.

Is one form of sunscreen better than another? 

Mehhh. Hard to say. And there is a ton of conflicting information addressing this question. Some argue that since mineral sunscreen acts as a barrier, it’s more effective for sun protection. Others note that chemical sunscreen offers better protection if you are in the water. Neither one is “better” if you don’t apply it properly, and most doctors and skin professionals advocate choosing the product that you find the most comfortable to apply and wear because you will likely actually use it, as opposed to not applying sunscreen at all. 

Understanding SPF
The number following SPF (such as 30 or 50) defines how long it would take the sun’s UVB rays to burn your sunscreen-protected skin compared with no protection at all. Meaning, if you apply an SPF 30 sunscreen following directions to a T — applying it 20-30 minutes before exposure, and reapplying every two hours — it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. The SCF recommends that everyone wear a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher for everyday use, or SPF 30 or higher for times when you are outdoors, playing sports, or doing other activities where you will be exposed to sun for a longer amount of time. (Oh, did I mention that you also want to look for water-resistance in sunscreen, especially for outdoor sports and recreation?)

Do I Need to Wear Sunscreen If I Am Wearing SPF Makeup?
SPF-containing moisturizers, foundations, and serums have hit the market in recent years but they are not actual sunscreens. Think about it: You are supposed to apply sunscreen every two hours but would you reapply your SPF foundation every two hours? No. So, you should apply actual sun-protective sunscreen first, before applying SPF-infused or regular makeup on top.

There are, however, mineral powder sunscreens, often packaged as a brush application on top of a container of tinted or sheer powder. These are a great option to wear over makeup, and even to wear alone. The jury is divided on the efficacy of using only sunscreen powder, though I remember seeing women apply it on vacation and look amazing because it evened out skin tone and gave the wearers a terrific faux-tan glow.

Which Are the Best Sunscreens?
Only you can determine which ingredients you are most comfortable with. With so many suncare products out there and conflicting opinions, you need to do your own research and decide which formulations you are most comfortable with. Also, many suncare brands and skin care labels with SPF products use skin nourishing ingredients and antioxidants including hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, or vitamin E, which are great for women of all ages, especially those over 40.

To complicate matters, however, in May 2024, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American nonprofit research and advocacy group focusing on living healthy in a healthy environment, published its annual guide to sunscreens, boldly concluding that only 1 in 4 of the 1,700 products it tested are “safe and effective” by their research standards. The EWG firmly dislikes ingredients including oxybenzone and octinoxate, often found in chemical sunscreens, but EWG’s research practices and standards differ from those of other organizations.

The sunscreens that made their list were brand names I have not heard of but I am far from being an expert on 100% natural or organic beauty products or a frequent shopper at health food stores.

The EWG news, however, brought to light how behind the FDA is in approving new and effective sunscreen ingredients compared with other countries in Europe and Asia. Personally, I stock up when I am in Europe and I get to go at least once a year since we are a French-American family. (Sorry, not sorry!)

To get you started on your research, here are some of our favorite sunscreen options. We did not include mass-market drugstore brands but some, including Hawaiian Tropic and SunBum, earn high rankings from sites such as Good Housekeeping, which boast thorough testing methods.

Search out the sunscreen that seems to suit you best and buy it in the smallest size available. Give it a trial run. Many skin care brands and retailers offer generous return policies allowing you to bring back something you don’t like, even after opening, as long as you have a receipt. 

La Roche-Posay
La Roche PosayFrench pharmacy skin care brand La Roche-Posay just launched its Anthelios UV Hydra Hydrating Face Sunscreen SPF 50, ($40, 1.7 oz), adding to its broad collection of suncare products featuring patented sunscreen technology. The UV Hydra, a chemical sunscreen, has the brand’s exclusive Cell-Ox Shield technology that filters UVA and UVB rays along with an antioxidant blend that protects skin from the sun using 21% fewer ingredients. It also has moisturizing hyaluronic acid, which helps the skin retain water; vitamin E, another antioxidant; and La Roche-Posay’s French thermal water. 

Isdin sunscreenIsdin — a favorite sunscreen for skin protection and repair — claims to be Spain’s number one suncare brand and is one of my dermatologist’s favorite sunscreens. The company’s Isdin Photo Eryfotona Ageless Ultralight Emulsion Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($75, 3.4 oz) is a lightly tinted mineral sunscreen with 10.7% zinc oxide. It also contains Peptide Q10, an amino acid chain complex that keeps cells healthy; vitamin E; and patented DNA Repairsomes, a photolyase enzyme derived from plankton that has been shown to repair sun damage to the skin.

Isdin’s Eryfotona Actinica Ultralight Emulsion Broad Spectrum SPF 50+, ($70, 3.4 oz) contains many of the same ingredients as the tinted Ageless but its composition is designed to target actinic skin, meaning skin that has already suffered some damage. I sometimes use the Isdin Photo and like how lightweight it feels after application. 

Supergoop sunscreenSupergoop’s incredibly popular line of suncare was founded about 15 years ago by Holly Thaggard, who launched the company when she successfully placed SPF pump bottles in schools. It is now a purveyor of chemical, mineral, and hybrid sunscreens along with SPF makeup and skin care. The company recently launched several new products, notably a mineral version of their popular Unseen Sunscreen ($40, 1.7 oz). And while not a full-fledged sunscreen, the new Protec(tint) ($44, 1.18 oz) is available in 14 shades, boasts a whopping 13.58% of zinc oxide, and is SPF 50. A staple and everyday favorite for many? The water-resistant Supergoop Play SPF 50 (available in an 18 oz bottle for $68).


The Outset
The Outset sunscreenActor Scarlett Johansson launched The Outset skincare in 2022 with a handful of products designed for sensitive skin like her own. She’s struggled with breakouts for years and found that many products’ harshness only exacerbated her troubled complexion.

This year, the company introduced The Outset Hydrasheer 100% Mineral Sunscreen ($44, 1.7 oz), which contains nearly 15% of zinc oxide; the moisture-boosting anti-inflammatory snow mushroom, which can hold up to 500 times its weight in water; niacinamide, which brightens the skin and improves its texture; ceramides — lipids that literally help hold your skin together; and the company’s patented Hyaluroset Complex, a plant-based ingredient sourced from Cassia seeds that has nearly the same moisturizing and nourishing attributes of hyaluronic acid. I was honestly surprised by how sheer this sunscreen is after application, given its high zinc oxide content.  

Colorscience sunscreenColorescience was founded in 2000 by mineral-based cosmetic inventor Diane Ranger and is the only maker of brush-on mineral powder SPF that has been awarded the Skin Care Foundation’s approval for active use. In addition to its best selling Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 powder ($69), which comes in four shades, Colorescience offers SPF-tinted and untinted creams, SPF infused makeup, and basic skin care items.

Among their newest products is the Barrier Pro 1-Step Cleanser ($46, 5 oz) created specifically to remove mineral-based suncare and cosmetics with its accompanying Essential Moisturizer ($78, 1.7 oz).

Ursa Major
Ursa Major sunscreenIndie beauty brand Ursa Major is a certified B-Corp (meaning their performance, accountability, transparency, and supply chain practices meet a high level of established standards). It was founded by life and business partners Oliver Sweatman and Emily Doyle — beauty and personal care product veterans — in 2010.

The Vermont-based brand (a favorite among herbalists) just launched its first suncare product, Force Field SPF 30 100% mineral facial sunscreen ($58, 1.7 oz). In addition to containing 14.95% zinc oxide, the SPF contains squalane, which improves skin texture; sodium hyaluronate for moisture retention; Elfdoc flower, which strengthens the skin barrier while protecting it from blue light and pollution; and lingonberry stem cells, which in addition to combatting blue light and pollution also help to offset sagging skin, among its other skin benefits.

Project Reef
Project Reef sunscreenLaunched in 2022, Project Reef from Maui is another B-Corp brand offering suncare that protects your skin and protects the planet — and notably marine life. The company’s small collection features 100% mineral sunscreen in cream or stick form, a cooling mist and lotion, non-SPF lip balm, and two accessories ($18-$36).

One thing to love about them? The company removes one pound of plastic from the ocean with each purchase, and since its founding has eliminated over 59,000 pounds or the equivalent of 1.3 million plastic bottles.

Project Reef is based on the same eco-protecting practices exercised by the state of Hawaii that banned the sale of non-mineral sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which have been proven to damage coral reefs.   

Vacation sunscreenThis list would not be complete without the tongue-in-cheek yet seriously made Vacation, a  “leisure enhancing” Club-Med-of the-1980s-inspired sunscreen collection launched in 2021 that claims to have the best-smelling suncare products ever. While it looks like a total gimmick, what with its Classic Whip SPF 30 chemical sunscreen ($22, 4 oz) that comes out of a mini whipped-cream can, the collection is developed alongside board-certified dermatologist Elizabeth Hale, who is an officer of the SCF, along with being an associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center and having her own New York practice CompleteSkinMD.

Vacation has both mineral and chemical suncare products, some with unexpected scents such as chardonnay, SPF lip balms, fragrances and merch ($5-$60). They also have the Orange Gelée SPF 30, a nearly successful attempt to replicate the iconic original Bain de Soleil gel. While Vacation’s iteration is deliciously emollient thanks to hydrating ingredients, including shea butter, coconut oil, jojoba oil, and vitamin E, and the scent largely resembles that of the original, it is decidedly not the same … but, I’ll use it anyway! 

For more summer skin care products, read this.

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