The Best Sunscreens For Your Face, According To Dermatologists

Mineral sunscreen ingredients—there are two: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—work entirely differently. Rather than absorb UV rays, they sit on the top layer of skin and physically reflect, scatter, and block them, says Chien. And unlike most chemical ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide each guard against both UVA and UVB rays.

Whether you’re looking at the label of a mineral- or chemical-based sunscreen, you’ll see a percentage listed after each active ingredient. These refer to the concentration of the ingredient, but our dermatologists say to not worry too much about them.

“I usually don’t guide by percentages because while, ideally, you’d want to aim for the highest percentage, higher percentages also mean the sunscreen will be thicker and harder to rub in,” Ivy Lee, M.D., board-certified fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and adjunct clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, told Fatherly. “Also, the higher percentages sometimes lull people into thinking they don’t need to reapply. Instead of focusing on percentages, look at the active ingredients and whether the sunscreen is broad spectrum.”

Which sunscreen is best? 

Between chemical and mineral, which kind is safest and most effective for kids? While the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreens, considers 13 different chemical ingredients and the two mineral ingredients to be generally recognized as safe and effective, or GRASE—for now anyway; more on that later—all of the dermatologists Fatherly spoke with prefer mineral sunscreens for kids, for a number of reasons.

“I like mineral for simplicity’s sake,” Lee says. “Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are broad spectrum, whereas with chemicals, some are more effective than others so it depends on combination to offer broad-spectrum coverage. Also, because mineral sunscreens tend to be opaquer, you know exactly where you have applied and where you haven’t, and they are easy for kids to apply themselves.”

Mineral sunscreens are also less likely to irritate kids’ skin than chemical products because they sit on top of the skin versus soaking in. “Kids can get allergic contact dermatitis to the active ingredients in sunscreen, which is more likely with chemical sunscreens than mineral,” Lee says. “But the preservatives can also cause irritation. That’s why I recommend sticking with simple, bland but effective ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.”

Also know that a sunscreen that doesn’t bother your skin could easily trigger theirs. “Children have more sensitive skin than adults; therefore, mineral sunscreens are a better option for them,” Chien says. “You may want to test sunscreen on the inside of your child’s wrist. If they have a little irritation, try another sunscreen.”

It is mainly because of the skin-sensitivity issue that certain sunscreens are marketed specifically for kids or babies. But in most cases, this merely means that the product is made with active mineral ingredients instead of chemicals; there may also be no fragrances, minimal preservatives, or other potentially irritating components in the lotion. But a “kid” or “baby” designation does not necessarily speak to the efficacy of the product. Therefore, when shopping for sunscreens, don’t feel limited to only those marketed for youngsters. 

The main knock against mineral sunscreens has always been their cosmetic appeal. “Mineral, or physical, sunscreens tend to be thicker and may leave a white cast behind,” Chien says. “However, many new formulations are micronized, meaning the product’s particles are small enough to blend and disappear into the skin more easily.”

Are chemical sunscreens truly safe?

Despite chemical sunscreens’ GRASE status, concerns have been raised about a few in particular. Most notably, oxybenzone, one of the most commonly used because of its ability to absorb both UVA and UVB rays, has come under fire. Preliminary studies conducted on animals have suggested that oxybenzone could mess with hormonal systems within the body, while observational analyses of humans have revealed a potential link between the chemical and lower testosterone levels and lower birth weights. 

However, while this preliminary data is worth noting, it is far from definitive and does not prove that oxybenzone poses a real health threat to humans. “Old research, where oxybenzone was force-fed to immature rodents, suggested that oxybenzone may cause hormone disruption,” Chien says. “But topical application by humans does not equal the oral dosage administered to the rodents. More recent human studies have shown absolutely no change in hormonal levels in individuals using sunscreens containing oxybenzone.”

Bender is also not worried about oxybenzone posing a health threat, especially since we regularly excrete it via urine versus it accumulating in the body like many other chemicals do. Still, for parents who want to be extra cautious given the research, this could be yet another reason to choose mineral sunscreen for kids over products containing oxybenzone.

So, for now, oxybenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, and other chemical sunscreens are still considered safe and effective.

All the following sunscreens have the Skin Cancer Foundation seal of recommendation:

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Alba Botanica Tropical Fruit Kids SPF 45 Sunscreen

This mineral-based sunscreen provides broad spectrum protection, is water resistant for up to 80 minutes and is coral reef-friendly.

Buy Now $5.63

Alba Botanica Tropical Fruit Kids SPF 45 is tear-free, lightweight, and is made with oxybenzone, octinoxate, PABA, nano-sunscreens and Vitamin A.

Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, octyl salicylate

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Babyganics Kids Sunscreen Spf 50 Stick

This sunscreen stick is water-resistant for up 80 minutes and is formulated with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Buy Now $19.99

If you’re sick of holding your kid down to apply sunscreen (and who isn’t), this sunscreen stick is your savior. It goes on smoothly, and it stays on.

Active ingredients: Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide.

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Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Mineral Sunscreen Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF 50

This sunscreen is made with zinc oxide, and is free of fragrance, parabens, phthalates, dyes and irritating chemicals. Plus it's tear-free.

Buy Now $32.91

Neutrogena’s sunscreen provides 100 percent mineral sun protection, with zinc oxide as its only active ingredient. It’s effective for 80 minutes of swimming. 

Active ingredient: Zinc oxide

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La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Sunscreen SPF 60

A perpetual sunscreen favorite, this one is oxybenzone-free and octinoxate-free, and suitable for sensitive skin in older kids.

Buy Now $19.99

Note that this is not a mineral-based sunscreen, but is rated highly by Consumer Reports for its general effectiveness.

Active ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene

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EltaMD UV Sport Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 50

A great sunscreen for those on the go, this mineral-based sunscreen is water-resistant and won't drip into your eyes and sting them when you sweat. It's a brand consistently recommended by dermatologists.

Buy Now $24.50

A solid sunscreen with zinc oxide as its main active ingredient, EltaMD’s sunscreen is fragrance-free, oil-free, paraben-free, sensitivity-free and noncomedogenic.

Active ingredients

Zinc oxide, octinoxate, octisalate

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MDSolarSciences Mineral Crème Broad Spectrum SPF 50

If your kids complain about sticky sunscreen, then try this one, which goes on silky-smooth and they'll forget it's even there.

Buy Now $22.05

While it’s packaged for adults, this mineral-based sunscreen is safe for kids six months and older.

Active ingredients: Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide

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Sun Bum Original Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion

This reef-friendly sunscreen is a nice, solid go-to for everyday use with SPF 30 protection.

Buy Now $13.60

This SPF 30 sunscreen is ultra-moisturizing and lightweight. The brand also makes mineral-based sunscreens, if that’s your preference.

Active ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene

The environmental impact of sunscreen 

While the health risks associated with chemical sunscreens may be unproven, those aren’t the only concerns about them. Many have the potential to harm aquatic ecosystems. Since they are not easily removed by wastewater treatment systems, these chemicals inevitably end up in waterways—in addition to the sunscreen chemicals that go directly into lakes, rivers, and oceans when they come off of our bodies while we swim and recreate.

In fact, according to the National Park Service, up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters coral reef areas annually. Studies have shown that oxybenzone and octinoxate, specifically, bleach out the coral, potentially causing irreparable harm to these already delicate ecosystems. These chemicals have also been detected in the bodies of fish around the globe, which could negatively impact food chains.

Citing these grave ecological concerns, Hawaii and the Western Pacific nation of Palau both banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2018. Key West, Florida, followed suit earlier this year, and a similar ban has been proposed in California. Outdoor retailer REI has agreed to stop selling oxybenzone sunscreens starting in 2020.

Due to growing awareness of the environmental issues associated with oxybenzone and octinoxate, some sunscreens not containing either ingredient are now claiming to be “reef safe.” However, according to Consumer Reports, there is no agreed-upon or government-regulated definition for this term. Additionally, oxybenzone and octinoxate are simply the most studied of the sunscreen chemicals—others may very well impose similar damage on coral reefs. If this is a concern, your best bet is to stick with products made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are not as ecologically harmful.

Every product on Fatherly is independently selected by our editors, writers, and experts. If you click a link on our site and buy something, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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