What’s the Best Sunscreen for the Face?

Environmental factors, notably ultraviolet (UV) solar radiation, can cause sunburn and other types of sun damage, leading to skin cancer with prolonged and repeated exposure.

UV light causing linkage of DNA bases to each other.

Sunscreens are designed to prevent the bulk of the UV radiation from contacting the skin, thereby helping to prevent sun-related skin damage and skin cancer.

With so many types of sunscreen products available to the consumer, it can be difficult to know whether to purchase the product or not.

The FDA mandates that sunscreens clearly label certain qualities (i.e., SPF value, “broad spectrum”); these labels can be exploited by educated consumers to purchase quality products.

Broad Spectrum Sunscreens

Sunscreen products with the label “broad spectrum” block the two different wavelengths of harmful solar UV rays, which are designated as UVA and UVB.

UVB rays are primarily responsible for causing sunburn, and they only affect the most superficial skin layers.

UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply (as well as glass windows), and are largely responsible for giving rise to the visible signs premature aging.

Both UVA and UVB rays are implicated in the development of skin cancer; more recently, visible light has been demonstrated to damage the skin, especially in regard to the development of hyperpigmentation and darkening of the skin.

SPF Values

The sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of how effective a given product is at preventing sunburn; it is a ratio of the amount of UV radiation required for a minimal amount of skin redness to develop with sunscreen to the dose required without sunscreen.

For example, if the SPF value is 15, then it takes 15 times longer for the skin to become red with that particular sunscreen than without it.

The SPF value is primarily a measure of protection against UVB rays, since these are they primary causative factor in the development of sunburn.

Given that the average person applies less than half of the recommended amount (one fluid ounce) of sunscreen, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a product with a minimum SPF value of 30, which protects against 97% of the sun’s UVB rays.

Physical and Chemical Sunscreens

Physical (mineral) sunscreens contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as their active ingredient(s), forming of a barrier on the surface of the skin, which blocks radiation from solar UV rays.

Physical sunscreens are effective immediately after application and have been shown to block some visible light that can lead to darkening of the skin.

Physical sunscreens offer quality broad spectrum UV coverage and are generally well-tolerated, with a lower incidence of skin irritation than their chemical counterparts.

Chemical sunscreens contain at least one of the following active ingredients: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, or homosalate; they work by preferentially absorbing the harmful UV rays over the skin cells.

Chemical sunscreens are effective after approximately 20 minutes of their application, and they tend to blend into the skin more easily than mineral sunscreens.

Some sunscreens are combinations of both types; since titanium dioxide decreases the efficacy of avobenzone, these active ingredients should not be used together.

Waterproof and Water-Resistant Sunscreens

If a sunscreen product is labeled as being “water resistant”, it simply means that the product is able to stay on wet skin for a certain period (usually 40-80 minutes) without the need to be re-applied.

All sunscreens should be re-applied at regular intervals when outdoors; it is generally recommended to re-apply sunscreen every 2 hours.

When participating in activities like swimming, sunscreen should be re-applied each time you get out of the water.

Daily Sunscreen

While indoors, it’s easy to forget about the heat, the sun, and UV radiation, but recent evidence suggests that even light in the visible spectrum can cause certain types of skin damage (e.g. hyperpigmentation).

In addition to this, UVA rays, which are responsible for causing most of the signs of premature aging, penetrate glass windows and come into contact with your skin, even while you’re inside.

Since damaging effects of sunlight are seemingly ubiquitous, a majority of people benefit from application of a broad spectrum sunscreen (with minimum SPF value of 30) daily, which can be applied as part of your everyday skincare routine.

Sunscreen for the Face

Many of the modern facial moisturizers are formulated with a sunscreen, allowing facial moisturizer and sunscreen to be applied as one product.

If you are accustomed to using a separate sunscreen on your face, it’s best to apply it a few minutes after your moisturizer, as the last step in your skincare routine.

When choosing a sunscreen for use on the face, care must be taken to make sure that it is hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic; mineral sunscreens are generally less irritating to the skin than chemical sunscreens.

An aesthetic flaw of using mineral sunscreens on the face that they leave a whitish hue after application; tinted mineral sunscreens are easily blended with the complexion without leaving an undesirable tint to the face.

Don’t Forget Your Hands

Speaking from personal experience, hands are the first place that I tend to notice dry skin; they come into contact with everything, and frequent hand-washing is notorious for drying them out.

If you’re going invest time preventing sun damage to your face, you should probably go ahead and do the same for your hands.

Grace Kelly was aware of the fact that your hands can instantly divulge your age, despite all the care that you’ve taken to prevent and treat sun damage on your face.

A few hand creams that are very effective moisturizers also contain sunscreen to protect your hands from damage.

Worth the Wear?

An ounce of sunscreen is probably worth (at least) a pound of Botox; it astounds me that people are willing to spend so much time, effort, and money treating the effects of aging when they could have much more easily prevented most of it in the first place.

Sunscreen, with virtually zero risk, has multiple desirable effects, and its regular use can dramatically slow the visible signs of aging.

When purchasing a sunscreen, it’s important to select a product with a minimum SPF value of 30 and broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection.

La Mer Sunscreen
Broad Spectrum
SPF 50

Water-resistant sunscreens are convenient because they can protect wet skin; however, care must be taken to remember to re-apply them every 2 hours.

Either a mineral or chemical sunscreen can be effectively used as long as you’re aware of the limitations of each type.

Sunscreens specifically designed for use on the face generally have hypoallergenic and non-comedogenic properties; tinted versions of mineral sunscreens off superb UV protection without giving your skin a whitish hue.

Broad Spectrum Facial Sunscreens

    1.  Elta MD UV Physical Broad Spectrum SPF

    • Water-resistant (40 minutes)
    • Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
    • Lightly-tinted formula
    • Fragrance-fee, oil-free, and noncomedogenic
  1. Sunforgettable Total Protection Body Shield SPF 50
    • Broad spectrum
    • Water-resistant (40 minutes)
    • Zinc oxide
    • Universal tinted shade
    • Oil-free
  2. Avene tinted Mineral Sunscreen Fluid SPF 50+
    • Broad spectrum
    • Tinted Lotion
    • Fragrance-free
    • Matte finish
  3. La Mer Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Protecting Fluid
    • Easily absorbed, lightweight lotion
    • Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone (chemical sunscreen)
  4. Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Face Liquid Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50
      • Water-resistant (80 minutes)
      • Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
      • Fragrance-free, oil-free, and noncomedogenic

  5. Vanicream Sunscreen
    • Broad spectrum SPF 50+
    • Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide
    • Fragrance-free and dye-free

2 Replies to “What’s the Best Sunscreen for the Face?”

  1. Wow! This is elaborate. I love the detail.

    I always burn. IT is unfair. I think it has to do with me being irish and having very white skin. I HATE it. I never get a tan.

    Enough complaining, I really liked how you broke down each sun cream, and what is in it, and instructions on how to apply it.

    1. Hi Conor,

      I know…I don’t really spend much time in the sun because of the harmful effects. My Dad has that type of very pale skin; I’m roughly 3/4 French and 1/4 Scotch/Irish, but I got a combination of my mother and my father’s skin.
      You can look good without tanning, and if you really wanted to, you can use modern sunless tanning products that are really good these days and don’t make you look like a carrot. They really have come a long way. Besides, even if your skin is pale, the last thing you want is pale, wrinkly skin. Thank you for your interest!


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