Finding a good sunscreen is a lot harder than it should be. Do you know what to look for?

I don’t usually pack a ton of toiletries when I travel, but one thing that always makes the cut is sunscreen.

While we should really be wearing sunscreen everyday – UV rays can penetrate the windows of your home/office/car after all – I think it’s especially important to wear a sunscreen while on vacation, since that generally involves spending large quantities of time outdoors.

Unfortunately, buying a good sunscreen isn’t as simple as walking into a shop and plucking one from the shelf. Many sunscreens are full of ingredients that can be toxic, that can disrupt your hormones or even accelerate the risk and growth of cancers (which kind of defeats the point of applying sunscreen in the first place!).

If you’ve found the search for a decent sunscreen as frustratingly difficult as I have, then I hope this guide about what to look for and what to avoid will help you focus your search.

At the bottom of the post, I’ve listed a number of sunscreens that are considered “safe”, as well as the specific sunscreens that I’ve chosen to use.

What to look for in a sunscreen

1. A physical barrier rather than a chemical component (with the exception of newer, safer chemicals like Mexoryl SX, also known as ecamsule). Sunscreens are divided into two types: physical and chemical. Physical or mineral sunscreens sit on your skin and act as a shield, deflecting UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays. The problem with chemicals though is that they penetrate the skin and over time that can build up and have toxic effects. Read more about the toxicity of different chemical compounds here. Good ingredients to look out for are: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and avobenzone.

2. An SPF of at least 30. Higher SPFs don’t provide dramatically greater protection and there’s research that shows people are sometimes worse off with a higher SPF because they underestimate how much, or how often they need to apply. Here’s the difference in protection: SPF 30 blocks 96.7% of UVB rays, SPF 50 blocks 98% and SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays. Read more about SPF ratings and what they mean here.

3. Broad-spectrum coverage. This means a sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection. UVB is what leads to tanning & sunburn, while UVA causes aging & wrinkling. Both however, lead to skin cancer. Read more about ultraviolet radiation here.

4. Water resistance if you’ll be heading to the beach or pool. Remember you’ll still need to reapply after swimming or toweling.

What to avoid in a sunscreen

1. Avoid oxybenzone. This is an endocrine disrupter, meaning it messes with your hormones. Read more about it here.

2. Avoid Vitamin A (also known as retinyl palmitate or retinol). This is found in a lot of beauty and skincare products because of its antioxidant/anti-aging properties, however you want to avoid using anything with Vitamin A in it during the day as it can cause skin cancer when exposed to the sun. Read more here.

3. Avoid sunscreens that come in sprays and powders. Aside from the fact that it’s harder to apply properly, there’s a risk that you’ll breathe in micro-sized particles of sunscreen compounds. Read more here and here.

How to check if a sunscreen is safe

With a list of dos and don’ts this long, it’s hardly surprising that finding a safe and effective sunscreen is a maddening process. One site that I’ve found to be immensely helpful is the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen database. The EWG rates thousands of different sunscreens based on their safety and effectiveness. What’s more, the ratings are broken down by ingredient – so you can see which specific compounds are cause for concern and make your own call about whether or not to use the product. Their free sunscreen app is also awesome for when you’re out shopping and need to check a product’s safety rating on the go.

Despite this fabulous database, the search for a good sunscreen can still be overwhelming because even if a sunscreen is safe and effective, it can still have other bothersome properties, like being greasy, thick and hard to apply, or leaving a white cast (which happens with a lot of mineral sunscreens unfortunately). With that in mind, here are a couple of sunscreens that check most of the boxes listed above, receive a high safety rating from the EWG and get good consumer reviews:

Elta MD UV Clear SPF 46 

BurnOut SPF 30 Kids Physical Sunscreen

Solbar Shield SPF 40 Sunscreen

Vanicream Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin SPF 60

Blue Lizard Sensitive Sunscreen SPF 30

Banana Boat Natural Reflect Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

Coppertone Waterbabies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

The sunscreen products I use

I have crazy sensitive skin that burns even when I’m wearing sunscreen and sitting in the shade (which no one ever believes until they actually see it for themselves) so I’m really picky about what I put on my body. Listed below are the sunscreens that I’ve road-tested and continue to use. They’re actually quite hard to find in the US, but are available through a few online retailers. They don’t exactly come cheap, but they work so well for me that it’s worth it.

Body: La Roche Posay Anthelios XL Smooth Lotion SPF 50. This broad-spectrum sunscreen uses the newer, safer chemical compound Mexoryl SX that I mentioned in the section about physical vs. chemical sunscreens (read more about Mexoryl here and here). One thing I love about this is how easy it is to apply – it goes on like a moisturizer and rubs in quickly. The only downside is that my skin never feels completely dry to the touch with this product on, but it’s certainly not as greasy as some other waterproof sun blocks out there.

Face: La Roche Posay Anthelios XL Face Tinted Extreme Fluid SPF 50. I wrote about why I love this product in my post on great hair and makeup products for summer travel. It works great on it’s own or under makeup. It also goes on super light and the grease factor is low which means I actually use it.

Lips: La Roche Posay Anthelios XL Lipstick Sunblock SPF 50. I like this balm because it’s very moisturizing and doesn’t have any weird sunscreen-y taste like some others I’ve tried.

One word of caution – La Roche Posay makes so many different sunscreen products with different levels of coverage that it gets pretty confusing. Make sure you’re buying the XL line if you want the benefit of Mexoryl, and check that the product has both UVA and UVB protection as not all of them do.

What do you think? Have you had as much trouble as I have in finding a decent sunscreen? Have you found a safe sunscreen that you love that you can share with readers?

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