6 Things To Look For When Buying Sunscreen

by Gio
things to look for when buying sunscreen

If there’s one product you can’t randomly pick up off the shelf, it’s sunscreen.

No matter how pretty the bottle is or how catchy the name, they’re no guarantee the mixture inside will keep you safe from UV harm.

You need a sunscreen that works – in and out of the water. A sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white, gooey mess all over your face. A sunscreen that doesn’t irritate your skin.

You get it: a sunscreen can’t be an impulse purchase. It’s a decision that requires careful consideration. But what you should you consider, exactly?

Here are 6 things to look for when shopping for a reliable, broad-spectrum sunscreen:

1. Broad-Spectrum Protection

Hands up if you’ve ever reached for the sunscreen with the highest SPF. I mean, won’t SPF 50 protect you better than SPF 30?

From UVB rays, sure. From UVA rays? Mmmm… You see, SPF is all about UVB rays protection. Put another way, a sunscreen can protect you from ALL UVB rays and NO UVA rays and still be labelled SPF 50! How crazy is that?

You’d think it’d be a given that every sunscreen protected from ALL UV rays. And most of them do. But you can still find the odd cream that gives you only partial protection.

That’s why you can’t rely on the SPF alone. You must make sure your sunscreen gives you adequate UVA protection. How?

  • If you’re in the US, look for the word “broad-spectrum” on the packaging
  • If you’re in the EU, look for the UVA Seal of Approval
  • If you’re in Asia, look for the PA symbol (the more + signs after it, the higher the UVA protection)
  • If you’re in Australia, look for the PPD rating
  • If you’re everywhere else, check the label for one of these ingredients: avobenzone, zinc oxide, Ecamsule (Mexoryl S) or Bemotrizinol (Tinosorb S).

Related: What Does The PA Symbols On Sunscreens Mean?

How effective is your sunscreen? Subscribe to my newsletter below and download the “Sunscreen Audit” to find out:

2. Choose SPF 30 Or Higher

Derms recommend you use a SPF of at least 15. In my opinion, that may be ok in winter when you can barely see the sun. In summer, it doesn’t cut it.

If you know you’re gonna spend a lot of time outdoors, choose an SPF of at least 30. You can certainly go higher – if you can.

Remember that the higher the SPF, the thicker/greasier the texture tends to be. If it’s too unpleasant you won’t use it, will you?

Related: Does Higher SPF Provide Better Sun Protection?


3. Water-Resistant

If you’re looking for a sunscreen for everyday life, you can skip this. What’s the point of going for a water-resistant sunscreen if you’re spending most of your day at the office?

But if you’re planning to go to the beach, swim in the sun, play sports outside or just sweat a lot, opt for a water-resistant sunscreen.

Water-resistant means the SPF level stays effective after either 40 or 80 minutes (check the label) in the water. After that, you need to reapply it again.

Related: Do You Really Need To Reapply Your Sunscreen Every Couple Of Hours?

4. Avoid Spray-On Formulas

I confess: I do like to use a spray sunscreen to touch up my sunscreen without messing up my makeup.

But I would NEVER use a spray sunscreen as my base sunscreen. With base sunscreen, I mean the thick layer I apply every morning before putting on my makeup.

The point is that spray sunscreen is ok for touchups but you can’t rely only on it for sun protection. You know why?

Because you can’t see it! With spray sunscreens, its’ tricky to tell if you’ve applied enough or if you’ve covered every inch of skin.

Related: Does Spray Sunscreen Provide Adequate Sun Protection?

bioderma cicabio spf 50 and photoderm after sun milk

5. Sensitive Skin? Look For Mineral Sunscreens

Does sunscreen give you a rash? Or maybe you’re just looking for a sunscreen that’s safe for babies, too?

Opt for mineral formulas. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, two gentle mineral UV filters that provide broad spectrum protection without irritating skin. They’re so gentle, even babies can use them!

The catch? Mineral UV filters tend to be thick and leave a white cast behind. If that bothers you, look for a tinted formula.

Related: 3 Reasons Why Mineral Sunscreen Is Better For Sensitive Skin

6. Expensive Doesn’t Mean Better

Good news: expensive doesn’t mean better.

It’s not the price that determines how good a sunscreen is. It’s the UV filters + how generous they’re applied that does.

The standard recommendation is to use 1/4 of a teaspoon for the face alone and a small glass shot for the entire body. That’s a lot of sunscreen!

If you’re on a tight budget, drugstore sunscreens will do the job just fine – as long as they meet all the criteria above!

Related: How Much Sunscreen Do You Need To Apply?

What Are The Best Sunscreens?

  • Drunk Elephant Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 ($34.00): available at Cult Beauty and Sephora
  • EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF 47 ($25.00): available at Dermstore and Walmart
  • Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection SPF 50 Sunscreen + WetForce For Sensitive Skin & Children ($42.00):available at  Nordstrom and Ulta
  • Skinceuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 ($34.00): available at Blue Mercury and Dermstore

The Bottom Line

Next time you buy sunscreen, make sure it provides broad spectrum protection, has a high enough SPF to do the job and fits all your requirements. Your skin will thank you.

What do you look for when buying sunscreen? Share your criteria in the comments below.



Allison May 6, 2014 - 3:20 pm

Another informative post from you, Gio! I try to stick with physical barrier sunscreens when possible, but they are thick. Face care is more of a dilemma. During the day, I wear moisturizer with SPF and a CC cream with SPF on top of that. I am hoping that it’s enough coverage. What do you wear on your face, Gio?

Gio May 6, 2014 - 7:40 pm

Allison, I love physical sunscreens, but they can be very thick indeed. Unfortunately, makeup and moisturizers with SPF don’t provide enough protection, unless you apply several layers, which no one does. I guess that if it is a cloudy, rainy day, and you’re barely spending any time outdoors, they may just do, but they’re not substitutes for sunscreen. However, they’re always better than nothing.

I’m using Sunumbra Sunkids SPF 40, which feels lightweight on and sinks in quickly. It can feel a bit tight on dry skin, though, but you can easily fix that by applying moisturizer beforehand.

audrey March 8, 2017 - 5:12 am

Does Sunumbra work well under full face of makeup?

Gio March 17, 2017 - 7:29 pm

Audrey, yes, it does.

Trisha May 6, 2014 - 5:31 pm

Thanks, Gio!

I have to admit, I do love the spray SPF. I only use it on hard to reach areas like my back, and time-consuming places like my legs. Also, sometimes I spray it on my head along the part so my scalp doesn’t get sunburned.

Gio May 6, 2014 - 7:45 pm

Trisha, I love how convenient spray sunscreens are, but I’ve always been hesitant to use them because I’m always scared I’ll miss some spots. But if you can apply them properly, then great. I had never thought about applying them on the head. Great tip! 🙂

Leire May 7, 2014 - 7:35 am

I have sun sensitivity and I have tried a lot of spf creams before I started to know a bit or two about cosmetic formulation. Dermatologists usually recommended me La Roche Posay products, but they wore off my skin very easily, I had a couple of burns because of that. Then I started to use Avene very high protection lotion for children with spf50, and it’s way better. It holds for a long time, it has good filters and no perfume. It’s my favorite since a couple of years ago.
Thank you for your post, it’s very interesting although I don’t know if the brands you mention are available in Spain.

Gio May 7, 2014 - 8:56 pm

Leire, I’m sorry La Roche Posay sunscreens didn’t work for you. I think they are good, but the active ingredients are synthetic and they tend to fade faster than minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are used in the avene sunscreens. That’s a wonderful product, and I’m glad it works so well for you. 🙂

audrey March 8, 2017 - 5:15 am

I also love Avene sunscreens (I love all their products, to be exact; they’re so gentle and effective!) but very hesitant to wear it under makeup. I heard Bareminerals Prep Step Mineral Shield SPF 50 (22% zinc oxide) is quite good under makeup and works as a primer too. I haven’t tried it because it’s $30/30ml and I have yet to finish another bottle of SPF30 sunscreen I just bought. What do you think about Braeminerals Prep Step, Gio? I feel like it’s so underrated and those beauty gurus on Youtube never talked about it.

Gio March 17, 2017 - 7:31 pm

Audrey, I see very few sunscreens getting much love online. Everyone talks about how important it is, but most people still don’t use it daily. I do like that one a lot.

Regn May 10, 2014 - 12:52 pm

Thank you so much for writing this! Today, I bought a cheap sunscreen for kids (water resistant, SPF 50) since I remembered you mentioning that cheap doesn’t always mean that it’s useless. Also, I’ve been so sick of my La Roche Posay sunscreen because it flakes terribly, then gets everywhere on my clothes and it was so expensive!

So I checked every ingredient in this new cheap one and it contains Octocrylene, Titanium Dioxide, Avobenzone and Ethylhexyl salicylate. It also contains Iscotrizinol, which isn’t mentioned above, but I found that it should absorb UVA and UVB radiation. So protection-wise, I guess I should be safe. I just hope it won’t mess up my clothes like the previous one. A nicer formula would also make reapplying much easier. 🙂

Gio May 10, 2014 - 1:23 pm

Regn, you’re welcome. Judging by the ingredients, it’s a good formula that provides broad spectrum protection. Yep, Iscotrizinol can protect against UVA rays, but it’s not widely used, and in the US hasn’t been approved yet, which is why I tend to forget it. 😳 Thanks for reminding us of it. 🙂

I hope the texture will work for you too, and that it won’t mess up your clothes. It’s so annoying when that happens!

Regn May 14, 2014 - 6:55 pm

I have one more question. I know that BB creams don’t provide enough protection from the sun. This means that I should apply sunscreen under it. But how can I know that a BB cream won’t degrade my proper sunscreen? I’ve just read that it’s best to use make-up products without any SPF after using sunscreen. However, I find it really impossible nowadays since almost every foundation contains some SPF! All make-up brands go crazy with SPF, but it’s so useless if there’s a chance of degrading the real sunscreen we should use every day.

I’m sorry if you already wrote a post about this and I’m asking here. Thanks so much for your help!

Gio May 14, 2014 - 8:09 pm

Regn, that’s odd. Usually experts recommend the opposite, to apply powders, and other products, with SPF for added protection. Although you can’t add SPF (SPF 30 + SPF 15 will give you the protection of SPF 30, not 45), that helps to make sure that all areas of the skin are covered, and that no spot is missed.

The article you read probably referred to sunscreens containing avobenzone. Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide (which are often used in foundations, BB Creams, powders etc) and Octinoxate can degrade this ingredient. However, there are plenty of sunscreens that use avobenzone with them. In these, Titanium and Zinc are usually coated, as that seems to fix these issues. These ingredients are often microencapsulated in cosmetics with SPF as well, so again this shouldn’t be an issue. But if you’re still worried about it, just avoid this combination, or reapply sunscreen more often.

audrey March 8, 2017 - 5:16 am

Honestly I have yet to find a 100% physical sunscreen that’s cheap. Why are they so much more expensive than their chemical sunscreen counterpart though? Such a bugger.

Gio March 17, 2017 - 7:35 pm

Audrey, I’d like to know the answer to that as well! Maybe it’s because fewer people buy them? Everyone complains about chemicals but most people run to them rather than put up with the cast left behind by physical sunscreens.

Barbara February 18, 2017 - 2:11 pm

LOVE this article and especially that first chart!!!

Gio March 16, 2017 - 4:48 pm

Barbara, so glad you do! 🙂

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