Dermatologists Rank the Best Sunscreen Brands

There are so many different types of sun protection out there that it can be hard to tell which one is right for your skin type, much less which ones you want to wear for an outdoor workout. From chemical sunscreens to physical blockers, it can be hard to decipher what is what. No matter what route you want to go, the important thing to remember is to wear sunscreen in the first place. Also, don’t let the sun scare you from working out outdoors. Vitamin D is important for our bodies, and working out in the warm weather will certainly get those endorphins pumping.

The best sunscreen brands to buy

For some perspective on all the sun protection choices available, we asked some top dermatologists to weigh in on what to look in a sunscreen for outdoor workouts.

For sweaty skin

Let’s face it, the point of working out is to break a sweat, but sometimes sweat and sunscreen just don’t mix. Anyone who has ever felt the sting of sunscreen in their eyes knows that a sweat-proof formula is the way to go. Dr. Howard Sobel recommends Neutrogena Wet Skin Spray SPF 30. “This is a broad spectrum sunscreen, meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays,” he says. “It is easy to apply and is water-resistant for about 80 minutes. It does not drip or look white on the skin, and can be applied to wet skin.”

Buy it now: Neutrogena Wet Skin Spray SPF 30, $11

For sensitive skin

Dr. Sobel recommends Aveeno Protect Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen with Broad spectrum SPF 50 for those with skin sensitivities. He likes this formula because it is also a broad spectrum sunscreen, but has the addition of colloidal oatmeal to hydrate and soothe the skin.

Buy it now: Aveeno Protect Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen, $5

For acne-prone skin

Dermatologists in Florida know their sunscreen better than most. Florida-based board-certified dermatologist and Mohs Micrographic Surgeon Dr. Alysa Herman says, “Many of my patients, particularly with oily or acne-prone skin admit to not wearing sunscreen because they’re either afraid of the formula causing breakouts or don’t want to add excess shine.” She likes La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen formula because it’s comfortable to wear and lacks shine.

Buy it now: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen, $20 

For people on the go

For her clients who work out, Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi of Capital Laser & Skincare likes physical blockers for the face, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. She prefers a sunscreen that spreads easily and is at least an SPF of 30. Try a natural physical sunblock stick, like one from the Honest Company. “A good option is a stick sunscreen if you play a sport where you need to hold something, like golf or tennis, because you can apply it without your hands getting greasy,” she explains.

Buy it now: The Honest Company Purely Simple Sunscreen Spray, $14

For picky sunscreen users

For those who don’t like the feel of sunscreen on their skin, try an ultra-lightweight formula. Dr. Dendy E. Engelman recommends Eryfotona Actinica Ultralight Emulsion SPF 50+ for his patients. “For athletes, and all my patients, I suggest using a physical sunscreen that helps protect against environmental damage and free radicals,” he explains. He likes this formula because it is a physical blocker that uses 11% zinc oxide, which means a high UVA and UVB protection factor. “This ultra-lightweight emulsion can be applied without a greasy feel so whether you’re in the gym or out for a run, there’s no unwanted residue to make you feel slippery or tacky after working up a good sweat,” he adds.

Buy it now: Eryfotona Actinica Ultralight Emulsion Suncreen, $55 

How to choose between a liquid, powder or spray sunscreen

Sometimes it’s hard to choose what sunscreen to buy with so many options out there. What’s the difference between an SPF8 and an SPF15? Is an SPF100 really necessary? Should you choose liquid sun creams, sprays or powders? Gone are the days when an SPF8 cream was your only option. Now you can set your makeup with an SPF powder, or never have to touch sunscreen with your hands by using a sun protection spray formula.

Liquid sunscreens are easy to use and everyone probably has them in their bathrooms already, but there’s something to be said about traveling with the new powder or spray formulas. A powder sunscreen is great to pop in your gym bag to ensure you have sun protection on you, wherever you go. A spray is a great option for people in a hurry, and they tend to be more sheer than traditional options. Nobody likes a white cast left behind by their sunscreen. With all the new and convenient sun protection technology out there, you have to wonder if it’s as effective as your old standby liquid formulas.  

The fact of the matter is that it’s more important to wear sunscreen in the first place than which formula is better, and to make sure you’re wearing it year round so you’re not over-exposed to the sun. But if you’re in the drugstore and you’re not sure what to buy, there are some tips from a top dermatologist that may help. Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, Founder of Capital Laser & Skin Care and Professor in the Department of Dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center offers up some helpful suggestions.

Still want to get a sun kissed glow without the harmful UV exposure? Research your options and get a spray tanning appointment near you.

It’s all about the application 

User error is a very real issue, no matter which formula you’re using. Traditional lotion sunscreens tend to be more popular for the very fact that it’s easier to ensure you’re covering your whole face or body. “The sprays are my least favorite because half of the spray ends up in the air rather than on the skin, but it can be good for hard to reach areas,” Tanzi says. Everyone who has ever had to apply sun protection on their own back can relate to this. She recommends applying a spray sunscreen indoors so that it doesn’t get blown away in the wind, and so you’re covering your whole body. Try a formula with a little bronze pigment in it so you can see exactly where it’s going to make sure you have adequate coverage.

Buy it now: Target, $16 

It’s what’s inside that counts 

Tanzi loves the idea of a powder sunscreen because of the ingredients. “They are a pure form of zinc or titanium, sit on the surface of the skin and reflect light off,” she says. Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are what’s known as physical blockers because the sun’s harmful rays are blocked from entering the skin in the first place, almost like a protective forcefield. Look for high concentrations of zinc oxide in your SPF formulas, anywhere from 15%-25%.

Buy it now: Ilia, $34

Layering is key 

Because sunscreen should be an important part of your daily routine, Tanzi advocates layering sun protection on your face. “Often I have patients use a lotion or moisturizer with at least an SPF 30, then apply powder sunscreen on top,” Tanzi says. “Powder sunscreen can also be applied several times a day to maintain protection and never messes up makeup. Reapplication is the key to effectiveness”.

Buy it now: Colorescience, $56

Do you need to wear sunscreen year round?

Ahh, fall. The air is crisp, the leaves are crunchy, the sweaters are cozy…and the sun is as big a danger to your skin as ever. While summer sun might get all the headlines, you can’t just ignore your skin the other nine months of the year, especially if your active lifestyle includes thing like outdoor runs, weekends on the ski slopes or even just a daily commute. We spoke with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frey, the founder of educational skincare website, to get her tips for how to prevent sun damage all year round.

When you are adapting your sunscreen routine for fall and winter, is there a difference in any of the formulations you should use?

Ever heard an expert say the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use? That’s true all year round. “My best advice is to use the best sun protection available 365 days a year. The best sunscreen is a broad spectrum sunscreen, with an SPF of 30 or higher. The difference between summer and winter is that the frequency needed to apply sunscreen decreases with less activity and sweating or swimming. The need to apply a sunscreen every two hours in the winter may not be necessary, where it would be highly recommended if playing volleyball on the beach in mid July,” says Dr. Frey.

Many people associate sunscreen with breakouts—what’s the skin routine you recommend in the drier winter months?

As far as sunscreen causing breakouts, the jury is still out, according to the available research. “It is possible that a given individual can react to a given ingredient in a sunscreen. This inflammation may lead to perceived breakouts,” says Dr. Frey. In addition, there is some evidence that moisturized skin has a lower tendency to breakout than dry skin. “Applying a facial moisturizer twice daily may diminish breakouts in individuals who are prone to acne, especially during the dry winter months.”

What order should you apply sunscreen, moisturizer, etc., and how effective is makeup/foundation with sunscreen added? Sure, it’s not enough for a full day in the sun, but will it get you safely through a winter commute?

The order of application for skincare products is always prescription medications, moisturizers, sunscreen, foundation, blush and colored cosmetics. “Women rarely, if ever, apply makeup thick enough to get the protection found on the label. Yes, the small amount of protection from the makeup is better than nothing, but I would still advise the consumer to apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen prior to makeup application to assure adequate UV skin protection,” says Dr. Frey. Plus, foundation isn’t applied to ears, lips and other areas where skin cancer is commonly found, so you’ll need to plan for those areas anyway.

Should people be concerned with a Vitamin D deficiency over the course of the cold months?

“Adequate Vitamin D consumption is always a concern, regardless of the season,” says Dr. Frey. “Unfortunately, there is no safe level of UV exposure from the sun or from indoor tanning for vitamin D synthesis without risking skin cancer development. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends vitamin D be acquired from foods rich in vitamin D and/or supplements. It should never be obtained from unprotected exposure to ultraviolet radiation.” Vitamin D is particularly important for women, as it has several health benefits, most specifically fostering bone growth, bone density and boosting the immune system, and the concept that too much sunscreen can lead to a deficiency is an unfortunate myth.

The overwhelming number of cosmetic changes that are seen on the skin, including pigmentation, fines wrinkling, blood vessel formation and loose skin, stem from sun exposure, and even with all the information available, 1 in 5 Americans will still be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. So whether you’re on the slopes or just in the office, do yourself and your skin a favor and make sunscreen a year-round staple.

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