Having fun in the sun is great for quality time with family, your mental health and getting some much-needed vitamin D. But the sun’s strong ultraviolet rays can be harmful without the right protection.

Sunscreen helps protect your skin from the sun, but with so many different products out there it can be hard to know what’s best for you and your family. We’ll explain the different types of sunscreen, what sunscreen ingredients are safest and which ingredients to avoid so you can be confident in what you’re putting on your skin all year round.

How does sunscreen work?

Sunscreen contains active ingredients that protect skin cells from the sun's ultraviolet radiation, including UVB (the rays that cause burning) and UVA (the rays that cause skin aging), in order to prevent skin damage that can lead to skin cancer as well as signs of aging. Sunscreens work by incorporating either chemical or physical active ingredients – or a combination of both – to protect skin against UV damage.

What are the different types of sunscreens?

Sunscreens come in creams, lotions, gels, sprays, sticks and many other unique formulas. For the most part, sprays, lotions and creams work about the same when they’re used as directed. But special care should be taken when using sprays to make sure you are applying a liberal, even coat to your skin.

Mineral sunscreens (sunblock)

Mineral sunscreen (also called sunblock or or physical sunscreen) sits on top of the skin’s surface, acting as a shield that deflects UV rays away from the skin. Because mineral sunscreens create a physical barrier, they’re effective as soon as they’re applied and protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Mineral sunscreens must be applied liberally to ensure adequate protection, but tend to have a white tint to them. The tint helps you see where you’ve applied the sunblock and any spots you may have missed. Because they sit on the skin’s surface, mineral sunscreens can be rubbed, sweated or rinsed off easily, so frequent re-application is necessary.

Mineral sunscreens contain nanoparticles that shouldn’t be inhaled, so it’s best to avoid spray and powder types to minimize lung exposure.

Chemical sunscreens

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into your skin and sit in the deeper layers. They contain ingredients that absorb UV rays and change them into heat, then release the heat from the skin.

Since UV rays must penetrate the skin more deeply in order for chemical sunscreen to be effective, there’s some risk of damage to the skin or an increase in existing brown spots. Chemical sunscreens can also clog pores and be problematic for acne-prone skin.

Plus, the heat-releasing nature of chemical sunscreens can be an issue if you have a history of rosacea, sensitive skin or hyperpigmentation (a common skin condition that makes some areas of the skin darker than others).

Chemical sunscreens take about 20 minutes to be effective, so planning ahead is important. Direct sunlight can cause the ingredients in chemical sunscreen to be used up more quickly, so re-application must be more frequent when you’re in direct sunlight.

Sunscreen vs. sunblock: Which is better?

Sunscreen and sunblock are different when it comes to the way they protect your skin, how they are applied and the ingredients they include. Both types of sun protection have their pros and cons, but sunblock has an edge because it doesn’t contain chemical ingredients that could cause skin irritation. When it comes to sunscreen, no product is one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to try out a few types to find what works best for your skin type and lifestyle.

What ingredients are in sunscreen?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been testing whether various sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed through the skin. While additional data is needed, results have shown that these six sunscreen ingredients were absorbed into the body’s bloodstream – even after a single use:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octisalate

According to the FDA, the fact that an ingredient is absorbed through the skin and into the body does not necessarily mean that the ingredient is unsafe. But it is continuing testing to determine the safety and long-term effects of exposure to these sunscreen ingredients. These ingredients are only found in chemical sunscreens, so some people choose to avoid chemical sunscreens that contain these ingredients for peace of mind.

Mineral sunscreens are generally regarded as safe and effective by the FDA, but are typically not as effective at blocking sun exposure. The long-term effects of these ingredients are still being researched, but unprotected exposure to the sun is proven to cause skin damage and cancer. It’s important that people continue to use sunscreen regularly while also being aware of the ingredients and potential risk factors.

The best (and safest) sunscreen ingredients

In 2019, the FDA recognized these two ingredients as GRASE, which stands for “generally recognized as safe and effective”:

  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide

These two ingredients are in mineral sunscreens and act as a physical barrier. There is little evidence that they are absorbed through your skin the same way that chemical sunscreens are.

So, which is better at protecting you from the sun? Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide? While both ingredients are safe and effective, there are a few differences. Sunscreens with zinc oxide tend to be more expensive but are the most effective by providing broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection. Titanium dioxide is somewhat less effective at blocking long wave UVA. However, titanium dioxide is lightweight and minimizes excess oil.

Everyone has unique needs when it comes to sunscreen, but be sure to choose one that:

  • Provides SPF 30 or higher
  • Has broad-spectrum protection (protects against both UVA and UVB rays)
  • Is water-resistant
  • Is appropriate for your skin and level of activity

Ultimately, the best sunscreen is one that you will actually use, so choose the method that works best for you.

The best sunscreen for your face

You can use the same sunscreen on your face that you use on your body, but it’s generally recommended to use separate types. Face sunscreen is often formulated with different ingredients that are gentler on the skin and better for delicate areas like under your eyes.

Some makeup, like foundation, already has added SPF. So, can that makeup count as your sunscreen coverage? While it can provide some protection, it’s not recommended to use foundation as a sunscreen replacement – it’s more like an add-on. To get proper coverage, you’d have to apply about a nickel-sized dollop, which is usually more foundation than most people like to use. So, it’s best to use apply a traditional sunscreen first, then layer with foundation and other makeup on top.

The best sunscreen for sensitive skin

Since certain sunscreens can cause dryness, itchiness and breakouts, it’s important to choose one that is gentle enough for even the most reactive skin. Chemical sunscreens may clog pores, so mineral or oil-free sunscreens with hypoallergenic ingredients can be a good option for those with acne, sensitive skin or rosacea. If you’re concerned about your acne or other face sensitivities, meet with a dermatologist.

The best sunscreen for babies and kids

Pediatricians recommend that babies under six months stay out of direct sun. When you’re outside, settle in to a shady spot and make sure your infant is dressed in lightweight protective clothing.

Dermatologists advise sticking to mineral sunscreen formulas for babies over six months and young kids because they can be less irritating on their sensitive skin. While spray sunscreens are a popular choice for kids, lotions and creams are better for making sure they’re getting full coverage. Stick sunscreen can also be a good option since it offers full coverage and is easy to apply with less mess.

Your pediatrician is a great resource for questions on kids health, sun exposure and sunscreen recommendations.

The best sunscreen for swimming and water activities

If you’re going to be in water, look for a sunscreen that has “water-resistant” on the label. These sunscreens have to pass a regulated SPF test procedure. They can be effective for 40-80 minutes when applied as directed, so check the label and make sure you reapply as necessary.

The best sunscreen for other outdoor activities and sports

Chemical sunscreens can be a better choice if you’re going to be outside in extreme heat or playing sports. Since chemical sunscreen gets absorbed by your skin, you’re less likely to sweat it off, or worse, have it drip into your eyes.

Does sunscreen cause cancer?

Some sunscreens can contain benzene, which studies indicate may cause cancer with long-term use. However, your risk of cancer from sun exposure is much greater. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Sun exposure also causes visible signs of aging, like wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.

The best sunscreen is the one you’ll use

With so many options out there, it can be hard to figure out what sunscreen is right for you. Ultimately, the best sunscreen is one that you’ll use frequently. Keep this information in mind the next time you are shopping to help you pick the best formula for your skin type, activity level and lifestyle. If you have questions about what sunscreen might be best for you, your primary care doctor or dermatologist are a great resource for recommendations.