Your Expert-Backed Cheat Sheet To Choosing The Perfect Sunscreen

It’s a year-round essential.

how to choose sunscreen
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These days, the beauty landscape is full of questionable advice, trends, and routines relating to skin care. But there’s one step that everyone (expert or not) can agree is non-negotiable, and that’s sunscreen application. Rain or shine, using SPF is vital to the health and wellness of you and your skin. “UV rays can cause wrinkles and fine lines, affect collagen and elastin production, inflame the skin, and lead to hyperpigmentation,” says Dr. David Kim, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Idriss Dermatology in New York City. Not to mention, sun exposure increases your risk of skin cancer, which affects 20% of Americans, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. Needless to say, sunscreen use is crucial.

While sunscreens of the past have earned a bad reputation for being thick, goopy, and leaving behind a white cast, modern-day formulas protect the skin without compromising user experience. Still, it can be difficult choosing one amongst the sea of options, but ultimately, the best sunscreen for your skin is one you won’t put off applying. “As with any products in a skin care regimen, I recommend incorporating products that you'll actually use,” says Dr. Howard Sobel M.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical attending cosmetic dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital.

With the help of top dermatologists, TZR breaks down how to scout the right sunscreen formula for your skin type and lifestyle needs.

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The Difference Between Chemical & Physical Sunscreens

First up, a lesson on SPF filters. Sunscreens are separated into two categories: mineral and chemical. Mineral-based products (also referred to as physical sunscreens) contain one or both of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and work by physically deflecting UV rays from the skin surface so that they can’t reach the skin cells, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., of SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care in Beverly Hills. This is different from chemical sunscreens, which rely on filters like avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, and octisalate to absorb the UV rays and convert them to heat, which then gets released from the skin.

There’s been some controversy surrounding one chemical filter, oxybenzone, and its potential health impacts. “Oxybenzone can be absorbed into the skin and has been detected in the bloodstream, raising concerns about its potential hormonal effects and the risk of allergic reactions, particularly in sensitive individuals,” says New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D. However, Shainhouse says that there has been no evidence of these effects in human studies, and that the FDA has requested more research be done by sunscreen manufacturers to scientifically demonstrate any potential dangerous effects. Oxybenzone, along with octisalate have also garnered red flags to their role in causing environmental harm. Both filters have been banned in Hawaii and Key West for their toxic effects on marine ecosystems.

Other than their active ingredients, mineral and chemical sunscreens also differ in terms of application. While physical formulas provide immediate protection upon application, chemical SPFs need to be applied at least 15 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredients to fully absorb into the skin and become effective, says Garshick. So consider your daily routine and whether or not it allows for a few extra minutes.

Choosing between the the two types of SPF all depends on your specific skin needs and preferences. “Chemical sunscreens are generally more lightweight and less likely to leave a residue, however, some people with sensitive skin may experience irritation or allergic reactions to certain chemical filters,” Garshick tells TZR. Also, it’s important to consider whether or not you’ll be wearing it under makeup, if you plan on doubling your SPF as a moisturizer (in this case, you’ll need a hydrating option), and how it’ll fare with your skin type.

In the end, the best way to choose between a mineral and chemical sunscreen is to test out a few formulas and let your skin decide.

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The Best Sunscreen For Your Skin Type

Oily Skin

According to Garshick, oily skin is more prone to breakouts and acne, and using products that clog pores can exacerbate these issues. As such, she recommends seeking out a non-comedogenic sunscreen because “it’s specifically formulated to not clog pores,” she says. Also, look for a lightweight formula (usually that means it’s gel- or cream-based), oil-free, and mattifying to help control excess shine. Most importantly, Garshick says to avoid sunscreens that could worsen breakouts, such as those with thick formulations (think: whipped textures) or heavy oils (like coconut or jojoba oil).

Dry Skin

When it comes to dry skin, you’ll want to opt for a sunscreen that provides both sun protection and hydration. “I recommend a moisturizing formula with a creamy or lotion consistency — these can help lock in moisture and prevent dryness,” says Garshick. Ingredients like hyaluronic acid, squalane, shea butter, glycerin, and ceramides are great for keeping skin moisturized while maintaining the skin barrier. As for what to avoid, Garshick says to steer clear of SPFs with alcohol, as the ingredient can exacerbate dryness and lead to irritation. Also, gel-based sunscreens tend to be less moisturizing, and formulas with a matte finish can sometimes feel drying on the skin.

Mature Skin

If you’re experiencing fine lines, wrinkles, sagging, and a general loss of firmness you should opt for hydrating formulas since mature skin tends to be drier. Also, look for an SPF that’s specifically designed to target signs of aging, such as those containing peptides and antioxidants, as they can help improve skin texture and firmness, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you can’t tolerate heavy or greasy products, look for lightweight, non-comedogenic formulas that feel comfortable on the skin.

Sensitive Skin

It’s tricky business finding skin care products that work for sensitive skin types, and sunscreens are no different. That said, Garshick says to go for gentle, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic formulas, adding that you may want to opt for a mineral-based sunscreen because it’s less likely to cause irritation compared to chemical ones. Potential irritants to stay away from are alcohol, fragrances, parabens, essential oils, and certain chemical filters like oxybenzone. Kim also says to look for formulas approved by the National Eczema Association (NEA), as they’re less likely to be irritating.

How To Choose Between Sunscreen Types


Available in both chemical and mineral formulations, sunscreen sticks are easy to apply and toss into a carry-on suitcase since they’re not a liquid. Their portability also makes them ideal for gym-goers, hikers, or anyone who prefers carrying their SPF in a purse or backpack since there’s no risk of spilling or leaking. That said, sunscreens in stick form are less likely to have many nourishing skin care ingredients because the formulation will most likely degrade the actives, says Kim. Also, their texture can be thick and tacky, and they’re more likely to transfer onto clothing, adds Shainhouse.


Traditional sunscreens come in lotion form, but the formulas of today feature skin-loving ingredients that suit a wide range of skin types. Anyone can use a sunscreen lotion — just be mindful of the ingredients and choose one according to your skin needs. Also, consider how the SPF will be worn — if you plan on swimming or sweating, you may want to choose a water-resistant option. Lotions can also come in tinted varieties, which can be great for those looking to even out their skin tone in addition to protect it.


Sunscreen sprays are a convenient way to apply and reapply SPF. They’re particularly beneficial for those with dry skin, as many are made with hydrating ingredients that can help replenish moisture after experiencing the drying effects of sun exposure. Also, some brands may dry quicker and not feel as tacky, says Shainhouse. One thing to note with this type of SPF is that more often than not, people don’t apply them properly or sufficiently. “Most people spray them around themselves as if applying perfume, but this just gets sunscreen particles in the air and environment around you rather than providing ample skin protection,” says Shainhouse. Also, it’s not enough to simply spray it on. To use one properly, hold the can one to two inches away from the skin, spray, and rub it in, making sure to repeat on all areas until the skin is fully covered.


They may not be what pops into your mind when you think of a traditional sunscreen, but powder SPFs are gaining popularity for their own unique benefits. For one, they double as a way to protect the skin and absorb excess shine at the same time — perfect for those who are oily and/or acne-prone. Also, because they’re made of minerals, they’re also ideal for those with sensitive skin who have trouble using chemical formulas. Unlike messy creams or lotions, they don’t leave behind a greasy or sticky residue. Powders can also be applied over makeup without disturbing it, making it ideal for touch-ups throughout the day.