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?

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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.