You’ve probably heard it before: the best sunscreen for the face is the one you’re actually going to use. But, in my mind, that’s a rather flippant response to a question that needs more consideration. You’re not going to get sunscreen compliance if you don’t address the reasons why many people don’t like wearing it.
So what are some of the reasons people dislike applying sunscreen?
- It’s greasy and makes me break out.
- I don’t like the feel of it on my skin.
- It irritates my skin.
- It makes my eyes sting and water.
- It pills and doesn’t work with the rest of my skin care products.
- I can’t apply it over my makeup?
- I don’t want to use all those harmful chemicals?
All of these reasons are valid. But all of them can be overcome.
Why wear face sunscreen
Many people believe that they don’t need to be applying sunscreen every day because they don’t spend much time outdoors. But they’re forgetting that sun damage is cumulative. You don’t need to be spending much time in the sun to be damaging your skin and increasing the risk of skin cancers. Just because you’re not burning doesn’t mean your skin cells and skin DNA are not in the firing line. Your skin is exposed to UVB and UVA rays every day. UVB rays are more obvious because they cause burning but UVA rays penetrate deeper, causing less obvious damage. These UVA rays are pervasive as they can penetrate clouds and glass.
Most sunscreen filters protect people against UVB rays. These have shorter wavelengths in the 280-315nm range. Only some sunscreen filters also protect against UVA rays. These have longer wavelengths in the 315-400nm range, which means they can reach the lower layers of the skin and cause cancer.
Sunscreen should be worn during the day when the UV Index is above 3. In Australia, this means virtually year round. It’s hard to keep track of when the UV Index is above 3, so just make it a habit to use it every day.
In case you’re still not convinced, most cases of melanoma are linked to UV exposure. High exposure during childhood carries an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma, the type of skin cancer that can kill you. Even one episode of severe sunburn during childhood or adolescence can almost double your chances of developing melanoma. Five or more such episodes between the ages of 15 and 20 can increase your risk of melanoma by 80% and your risk of non-melanoma skin cancer by 68%.
But this blog article isn’t intended to be about why you should use sunscreen every day, but rather how to find the best sunscreen for the face.
So let’s dive in.
What to look for in face sunscreen
By now, you all know that you should be using a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Look for those that provide both UVB and UVA protection. A minimum SPF of 30 is usually recommended. If you work outdoors, then you’re going to need a minimum SPF of 50.
Know that Australian and European sunscreens provide better UVA protection than US and Asian sunscreen, which measure this protection in a different way.
Some countries, such as Korea, test PA, not SPF. PA is based on a persistent pigmentation darkening test. This measures the increase in UVA someone can be exposed to, theoretically, before their skin starts to tan.
Korea is known for its exceptionally light formulations. However the country’s sunscreens came into question in 2021 after it was revealed that testing undertaken by two European laboratories measured significantly lower levels of protection than stated by the brands. For example, some products claiming SPF50 actually tested at SPF19. This led to some sunscreen products being removed from the market and others being reformulated.
When choosing your sunscreen, it’s also worth keeping in mind that age, skin tone, climate and time of year affect how photosensitive your skin is. You will need to make adjustments for this.
Chemical or mineral
Sunscreens use chemical or mineral filters. Both provide protection, however it’s a matter of preference as to which one works best for your skin and lifestyle.
Mineral filters, namely Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, tend to be thicker and heavier on the skin and may create some white cast, although many formulations these days use micronised versions that make them nearly invisible. Zinc Oxide protects fully against UVB and UVA rays, however Titanium Dioxide provides incomplete long-wave UVA protection.
There are dozens of chemical filters available. Given sunscreens are regulated in most countries, some filters, specifically the newer ones, may not be permitted for use in your country and therefore products containing those filters may not be permitted.
Europe and Korea formulate more elegant and less irritating sunscreens using these newer filters. The US, however, has very stringent regulations and has approved 16 sunscreen filters, but just eight are regularly used. Only two of these provide adequate UVA protection: Avobenzone and Zinc Oxide. The eight commonly used are Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate, Homosalate, Octocrylene, Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide.
The other eight on the FDA’s approved list are no longer used because they irritate the skin, have an unpleasant feel or are no longer made. Of these, Ensulizole may be associated with DNA damage in the skin and Dioxybenzone turns skin blue when exposed to sunlight!
The restrictive approach in the US is a source of frustration. Incredibly, the European regulators, who have a reputation for being extra cautious when dealing with human exposure to chemicals, permit more sunscreen filters than their US counterparts. The European Union allows 27 chemical filters. In Australia and New Zealand, 33 sunscreen filters have been approved for use.
Unfortunately, there are concerns about many of the chemical filters used in the US, specifically their ability to make it into the bloodstream and their potential to disrupt hormones. You can read more about these chemicals elsewhere on the site under Sunscreen Ingredients.
The US Environmental Working Group has put Oxybenzone and Octinoxate in the red zone and Homosalate, Octisalate and Octocrylene in the amber zone. It has only put Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide and Avobenzone in the green zone.
FDA testing in the US has confirmed that these sunscreen filters can make it into the bloodstream even after one application, however it’s not clear what effect this has and whether they cause any health issues. The FDA has called for more data from the manufacturers and is reviewing the safety of these chemicals.
Sunscreens come in different formulations, each with their own characteristics, benefits and shortcomings. You’re going to need to experiment a little to find which ones work best for your skin. For example, if you prefer to use mineral sunscreen but find they cause some white cast, try a tinted version instead.
Sunscreen protection comes in many forms. When selecting your SPF level, ensure it provides the protection you think does. Some products are classified as cosmetics, not sunscreens. As a result, you may not be able to rely on the claimed SPF rating.
Sunscreen comes in creams, fluid lotions, gels, mineral powders, serums, sprays and sticks. You’ll find moisturisers, serums and foundations with sunscreen too.
Sunscreen vs cosmetic sunscreen
Did you know that just because a cosmetic product has an SPF rating on it doesn’t mean it’s a sunscreen?
Moisturisers, foundations, lip balms, makeup mists, mineral powders and other ‘cosmetic’ products are able to claim they offer sun protection in Australia and New Zealand, yet they don’t have to prove they’re up to sunscreen standards. This is due to a loophole that was devised by the cosmetic industry and permitted by the regulator, the TGA, under ANZ Standard 2604: 2012. We believe this loophole comes at great risk to the public and urgently needs to be removed.
Under the cosmetic product provisions in this ANZ Standard, cosmetic products manufactured in Australia or imported into Australia can claim to offer SPF protection even though they haven’t undergone testing in Australia or been registered as a sunscreen here.
I take the position that any product that makes an SPF claim — whether a dedicated sunscreen, moisturiser, foundation or mineral powder — should be able to substantiate that claim.
Our own comparisons of some cosmetic products claiming sun protection demonstrate how inconsistent and unreliable these claims are for sun protection. As a result, the level of sun protection you’re receiving is variable and even questionable.
Cosmetic products may not provide the stated protection level.
How to use face sunscreen
How much to apply
Recommendations on how much to use varies around the world. Australia has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer and the recommendations state that one teaspoon, about 5ml, is needed for the face, neck and ears. In the US, the recommendation is three finger lengths. For the entire body, it’s 35ml or seven teaspoons.
It’s important to know that even perfect application of a sunscreen doesn’t give you 100% protection. SPF15 blocks out 93% of UVB, SPF30 blocks out 96.7% of UVB, SPF50+ blocks out 98%.
When to apply
Sunscreen needs to be applied 15-20 minutes before sun exposure. You need to allow enough time for your sunscreen to absorb and settle to provide optimum protection.
I’ve seen much misleading information saying that mineral sunscreens work straight away. It’s been claimed that chemical sunscreens work by absorption while mineral sunscreens work by scattering and reflecting. The new types of mineral sunscreen work similarly to chemical sunscreens – they work mainly by absorbing UV rays and transforming them into heat, which is then released. Only about 15% of a mineral sunscreen’s protection comes from scattering and reflecting. This means you need to apply it well before sun exposure.
When to reapply
The Cancer Council of Australia and most manufacturers advise that you should reapply your sunscreen every two hours. This is for a number of reasons, including imperfect application, sweating and rubbing, but also because some chemical filters are not completely stable when exposed to sunlight or heat. If you’re swimming or sweating heavily, you need to apply your sunscreen more often.
Many people who work indoors find this onerous and impractical, especially if wearing makeup. Due to this, they get rather complacent about reapplying their sunscreen.
So what to do? I recommend reapplying your sunscreen at lunchtime, before you head out to get a bite of lunch, and then again before starting the home commute. If you can’t do this because of your makeup, then keep a hat handy and top up with some mineral powder SPF or compact foundation SPF. But keep in mind this will provide some additional protection for incidental exposure but not for spending time in direct sun.
As already mentioned, sunscreen needs to be used in combination with other forms of sun protection, such as hats, protective clothing and shade.
How to find best sunscreen for the face
Shortlisting face sunscreens
I’ve personally found it near impossible to find the perfect sunscreen. There are many that are great, but they don’t necessarily tick all of my check boxes. But then I’m a super picky sunscreen shopper!
I look for a sunscreen that:
- provides reliable protection
- contains mineral filters or the safest possible chemical filters
- doesn’t leave me ghostly white
- doesn’t irritate my skin or eyes
- doesn’t my block pores or create breakouts
- doesn’t feel greasy or suffocating on my skin
- contains no fragrance
- doesn’t pill
- contains antioxidants
Is that what you look for too? At the end of the day, you may need to trade off one benefit for another and settle on what’s most important to you, rather than try to get everything you want.
So now you’re wondering, how can I use all this information to choose the best sunscreen for the face?
Start by selecting a product that’s been tested as a sunscreen and offers the level of SPF you need. Make sure it provides UVB and UVA protection. Some countries only require UVB testing and this can artificially inflate the stated protection level. Products that have been developed for other countries may not provide adequate protection for Australian conditions. Some countries also have been found to have different or even questionable testing standards.
Selecting best face sunscreen
Here are some tips to help you find the best sunscreen for the face?
- Stick to sunscreen brands that are prepared to declare all their ingredients, not just their active ingredients. Boohoo to all those brands that refuse to declare these.
- Decide whether you’re going to use a mineral, chemical or combination sunscreen.
- Choose the right protection level for your needs. A mineral SPF30 is going to be less heavy and thick than a mineral SPF50. The type of sunscreen you’re going to use under your foundation when working indoors is going to be very different to the one you’re going to use when you’re on a beach holiday.
- Select a trusted brand that’s been reliably tested and certified by your country’s regulatory body.
- Find the right formulation for your skin type. Mineral filters tend to be thicker and heavier whereas chemical sunscreens are lighter.
- Ensure you apply the right amount and cover your face, neck, ears and hands and any other exposed areas.
- Check the level of denatured alcohol in your sunscreen. Ultra-light and some dry-touch sunscreens contain denatured alcohol as one of the top ingredients. High levels can disrupt the skin barrier, affect the skin’s microbiome and cause inflammation. Denatured alcohol is especially problematic for acne, sensitive and rosacea skin.
- Be wary of spray sunscreens. There are warranted concerns about whether they provide the level of protection claimed. Additionally, there’s the risk of breathing in the chemical or mineral particles. If applying, spray them into your hand first rather than directly onto the face.
- Don’t apply a body sunscreen to the face, unless it’s also designed to be used on the face. It’s more likely to be irritating and have a thicker consistency.
- Find a sunscreen that can be applied around the eyes. This is an area that’s highly susceptible due to the thin and fragile nature of the skin, but is often ignored. If your face sunscreen is not suitable, use a dedicated sunscreen for the eyes. And don’t forget your lips too.
- Most face sunscreen will dry out and irritate your lips, so again you may need to use a dedicated lip sunscreen.
- Stick to a simple skin care routine in the morning. Don’t layer too many products or you’re more likely to get pilling and breakouts. Avoid using more than one serum. If the sunscreen is a moisturising one, you may be able to skip your moisturiser, otherwise use a lightweight and easily absorbed moisturiser that doesn’t contain highly occlusive ingredients such as petrolatum, waxes, butters, coconut oil or silicone. In the morning, let your serum and moisturiser absorb well before applying your sunscreen. This helps prevent pilling and avoids diluting the protective powers of your sunscreen.
- Determine how and when you’re going to reapply your sunscreen during the day and make it part of your daily schedule.
- Consider environmental issues, although there are a lot of conflicting arguments on this one.
A look at sunscreen ingredients
In addition to the tips above, you’re going to want to look at all the ingredients in the sunscreen, both the active ingredients and the other ingredients. It’s only in that way that you’re going to be able to select the right one.
The sunscreen filters used are an extremely important part of making your choice, however other ingredients also affect the product. They also influence the sunscreen’s effectiveness, stability and formulation. You need to find one you enjoy, or semi-enjoy using, otherwise you’re going to be doing everything possible to avoid applying it regularly.
Ingredients to avoid
On 21 February 2019 the FDA put out a Proposed Rule that PABA and Trolamine Salicylate shouldn’t be recognised as GRASE, generally recognised as safe and effective. This gives reason to pause and consider.
When it comes to sunscreens, I avoid the following ingredients:
- PABAs – allergic reactions and photosensitivity
- Trolamine Salicylate – poor UV absorber
- Oxybenzone – possible hormone disruption
- Octinoxate – possible hormone disruption
- Avobenzone – allergic reactions and photosensitivity
- Ensulizole/Ecamsule – photocarcinogenic potential
- Retinyl Palmitate – photocarcinogenic potential
- Fragrance or essential oils – allergic reactions, photosensitivity, pigmentation
This is based on my sensitive skin and my assessment of the research and my risk tolerance. You should make your own assessment and determine what risks you’re prepared to accept.
Sunscreens are imperfect and it’s difficult to find products that fully meet one’s criteria. It really depends on what’s most important to you: safety, SPF rating, tolerability, wearability, resistancy, environmental factors, price … You’ll probably going to find that you have to make a trade-off somewhere.
Ingredients to look for
As mentioned earlier in this blog article, sunscreens don’t filter out all UV rays. Antioxidants work to give your skin additional natural protection against UV and enhance the effectiveness of your sunscreen. They often have other skin benefits too. There are many antioxidants. Some of the better known ones with some level of evidence to show they boost the skin’s defences when exposed to UV include:
- Vitamin C: L’Ascorbic Acid, 3-O-Ethyl Ascorbic Acid, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Magnesium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate
- Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
- Grape Seed Extract
- Green Tea Extract / EGCG
- Coffee Fruit Extract
- Liquorice Root
- Vitamin E
Some antioxidants work synergistically and are best when combined, such as L’Ascorbic Acid and Vitamin E. It’s also worth knowing that the use of antioxidants with some chemical filters may help better stabilise them and reduce the formation of Reactive Oxygen Species, which are known to cause cellular damage.
Best sunscreen for the face checker
Face sunscreen and skin types
Sunscreen for oily and acne skin
- Look for non-comedogenic and oil-free ingredients.
- Chemical sunscreens are lighter and usually work best for oily skin types.
- Choose a gel or light emulsion formulation, but avoid those that have too high a denatured alcohol content.
- Apply acne medication first and wait about 15 minutes for it to fully absorb before applying sunscreen.
- Try foregoing your foundation as too many layers can overload the skin and trigger breakouts.
- If you still can’t find a sunscreen that works for you, you could try a moisturiser with an SPF30 or above. Make sure it’s from a reputable brand and you apply the correct amount.
Sunscreen for sensitive skin
- Avoid Oxybenzone and PABA as these are more likely to cause irritation.
- Avoid formulations with fragrance, essential oils or high levels of denatured alcohol.
- Choose a cream or emulsion formulation.
Sunscreen for rosacea
- Avoid Oxybenzone and PABA as these are more likely to cause irritation.
- Avoid formulations with fragrance, essential oils or high levels of denatured alcohol.
- Mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation.
- Avoid formulations that contain oils or are greasy as these provide nourishment to Demodex mites.
Facescreen for those you don’t like sunscreen
Ok, so you can’t find a product you like. I feel your pain, really, I do. But here are a few products that will help protect your skin from sun damage and premature skin ageing without being yucky sunscreen.
This is the in-clinic version that uses 12% Zinc Oxide as its UVB and UVA protection filter. It has Green Tea, Grape Seed and Vitamin E added to scavenge free radicals and also protect the skin from pollution. There are no essential oils, fragrance or chemical nasties. This one isn’t greasy or heavy and works well under makeup. It provides great incidental sun protection.
This is a moisturiser with 18.6% Zinc Oxide added to provide incidental protection. This is for those who want to wear something that moisturises and primes all in one, but don’t really like sunscreen. You can wear it alone or under foundation. It dries matte and leaves no greasy feel or shiny look. The Repair Your Skin contains L’Ascorbic Acid, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Vitamin E, Liquorice Root and Date Fruit Extract for their antioxidant and skin soothing properties.
Again no essential oils, fragrance or chemical nasties.
Now that you know everything — well, almost — everything you need to know about how to find the best sunscreen for the face, you can confidently shop for the right sunscreen. Of course, an ingredient list doesn’t tell you everything. So you’ll need to try out different formulations to find the one for you.
Yours truly in better skin