How to Pick the Right Sunscreen for Your Face
Don’t let recent recalls scare you from lathering up; BU dermatologist offers tips
Are recent headlines about a carcinogenic chemical in some popular sunscreens making you panic? In case you’re thinking about tossing out your sunscreen—don’t, dermatologists say. Last week, Johnson & Johnson voluntarily recalled some of their Neutrogena and Aveeno spray sunscreen products out of “an abundance of caution” after an independent study found that they contained benzene, a chemical that increases the risk of developing leukemia and other blood disorders. To be safe, CVS Health stopped selling some of its house-brand sunscreen products, too.
But don’t think that all spray sunscreens are dangerous: in fact, most sunscreens tested in the study—including sprays—were found to be completely benzene-free and should continue to be used daily.
The recall is “not a reason to stop using sun protection, which is known to prevent skin cancer,” Ranella Hirsch, former president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery, posted on Instagram. “To do so would be like hearing a particular car model was recalled and then committing to never drive again.”
Plus, now that mask mandates around the country have been loosened this summer, our full, uncovered faces are more vulnerable than ever to sun damage. But with hundreds of products on the market, it can be difficult to know which sunscreen is right for you and your skin.
BU Today spoke to Christina Lam, a School of Medicine assistant professor of dermatology and a clinical dermatologist at Boston Medical Center, BU’s teaching hospital, about how to pick the best sunscreen formula for your face and body. Her first rule of thumb: look for products that have an SPF of 30 or higher—and way, way higher if you have a history of skin cancer—and remember to reapply every two to three hours if you’re spending a significant amount of time outside. See more of her tips below.
First of all, there are two types of sunscreen: chemical-blocking sunscreen and physical-blocking sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens block UV rays by absorbing them into the skin and then releasing them. The common active ingredients in chemical products are avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate. Physical sunscreens, meanwhile, function by sitting on top of the skin and reflecting UV rays away from the body or face (think: the whited-out noses of lifeguards past). The common active ingredients in those products are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
There are certain properties associated with both types of sunscreen, which means it’s worth knowing which does what. Chemical sunscreens—like your good old Banana Boat Sport or La Roche-Posay’s sunscreen milk—are more water- and sweat-resistant and absorb quicker into the skin. They can, however, be more likely to clog your pores.
Physical, or “mineral,” sunscreens—like Sun Bum’s mineral face lotion—are gentler (less likely to irritate sensitive skin) and more moisturizing than chemical sunscreens. The big con with mineral formulas, though, is that they can be harder for the skin to absorb and can result in the dreaded “white cast.”
With that in mind:
If you have oily, acne-prone, or sensitive skin, opt for mineral and/or non-comedogenic formulas. “Sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide tend to be better tolerated by folks with sensitive skin,” Lam says. And, as always, oil-free formulas are a must, especially for anyone with acne-prone skin.
For anyone undergoing acne treatment—such as doxycycline or Accutane medications or a topical like tretinoin—you should consider upping the SPF, as treatment can make you more photosensitive. Additionally, “we recommend other sun-protective measures like avoiding the midday sun,” Lam says. “So, sunscreen, plus don’t play basketball at noon, because that’s definitely going to give you a sunburn.”
If you have dry skin, look for sunscreen with extras. “Sunscreen with ceramides or hyaluronic acid in it can be helpful for dry skin,” Lam advises. Or, just layer the sunscreen of your choice over your regular moisturizer—just make sure you let your skin dry down between products (rule of thumb: wait five minutes between applications).
If you have dark skin, stay away from mineral sunscreen. When not rubbed in properly, mineral formulas are infamous for leaving a whitish cast that can leave darker skin looking gray. If chemical formulas make you break out, however, go for a tinted mineral sunscreen—“a tint helps the product blend in better,” Lam says.
And yes, you still need to wear sunscreen if you have a darker complexion: just because you’re at a lower risk for sunburn doesn’t mean you should skip the SPF, Lam says. Sun damage—like fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, and roughened skin texture—can still affect your skin. Plus, there’s always the risk of skin cancer: “A lot of data shows that patients with darker skin still can get skin cancer, and when they do, it’s sometimes at a later stage because they’re not used to checking their skin,” Lam says.
Additionally, don’t count on sprays or sticks for your first application. “The problem with sprays or sticks is that it can be hard to reach every single area you need to cover,” Lam says. “You can spray, spray, spray but still end up with a sunburned splotch because you missed a spot.” Instead, she recommends using a lotion formula for your first application and utilizing sunscreen sticks and sprays for reapplication throughout the day. (Same goes for powder sunscreens, which can also be used for mattification purposes.)
Finally, organic doesn’t always mean better. Love the natural beauty aisle at your grocery store? That’s fine—but when it comes to sunscreen, especially, don’t assume that “plant-derived” is safer. “I always joke that poison ivy is plant-derived,” Lam says. “You can still experience irritation or an allergic reaction from ‘organic’ products.” Her suggestion: read labels closely, and if all else fails, reach for a mineral formula.