When it comes to skin care products, nothing — and I repeat nothing — matters more than your level of UV exposure and UV protection. Multiple studies have confirmed that UV damage is the most significant factor in developing signs of aging (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology). In short, it doesn’t matter how many retinoids, AHAs, antioxidants, plant extracts or peptides you slap on your skin if you’re not protecting yourself properly from the sun.
That said, one of the most common questions I get is for the best sunscreens. So, without further ado, here are my favorites:
Best with Zinc Oxide: Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 50
Let’s cut to the chase: It’s a little-known fact that most skincare experts prefer physical sunscreens to chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens, which include zinc oxide and titanium oxide, provide protection by blocking or deflecting UV light. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens like avobenzone, oxybenzone, and Parsol 1789 work by absorbing UV light, and then transforming that light energy (photons) into some other form of energy such as heat. I mean, think about it this way: If you could prevent intruders from entering your house, or transform them into friendly (but still uninvited) visitors, which would you do? I know that I would prevent them from entering altogether!
While the FDA does have regulatory oversight over whether or not any sunscreens — physical or chemical — are effective, there exists no comprehensive testing when it comes to how stable these compounds are in various formulations. Which is why you often hear things about avobenzone breaking down in the presence of the very UV light it was meant to block, or in combination with octinoxate (read more). On the other hand, you hear fewer reports indicating that zinc oxide and titanium oxide are unstable in UV light. I personally also notice fewer sunspots and changes to my skin when I use zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
Amongst the physical sunscreens, however, I further discriminate and choose zinc oxide over titanium oxide. It is a little-known fact that zinc oxide is better than titanium oxide. This is because UVA and UVB rays are separated into longer UVA (UV-aging) and shorter UVB (UV-burning), and zinc oxide blocks a significantly longer portion of UVA rays (Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 2005).
How much you like Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 50 depends on how much you are in the Skincare Camp versus the Cosmetics Camp. For instance, I’m sold on anything that is UV-protective — I’m big on the huge hats and oversized sunglasses and zinc oxide and really don’t care what I look like day-to-day — whereas I have friends who are huge on the makeup blogging and don’t really want to be seen with me adorned in the hat, big sunglasses, and the white-faced zinc oxide. So it depends.
Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 50 glides across the skin well, but it does make your skin look more white. It is the best zinc oxide formula I’ve used to date, and will be swearing by it from now on, but, again, it’s not going to be palatable for people who are religious about bronzer and/or tanning and/or makeup looking a certain way.
If you’re somewhere in the middle of wanting to look good everyday and not caring what you look like in the name of good skincare (that’s me), Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 30 has 3% less zinc oxide (18.24% versus 21.6% in the SPF 50 version), and is somewhat more cosmetically appealing.
Brief Synopsis: Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 50 provides some of the best UVA/UVB protection around, and I swear by it. However, it’s slightly pasty, white cast means it’s more for the person who is more into skincare than cosmetics (that’s me, hands down).
Best with Mexoryl: LaRoche-Posay Anthelios SX
Although, as I said above, most skincare experts prefer physical sunscreens to chemical sunscreens, chemical sunscreens still do work well. Research data has shown that Mexoryl in particular is more effective than either zinc oxide or titanium oxide alone in blocking UVA/UVB rays, and in fact blocks in a similar range to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in combination.
Mexoryl, available as SX (water soluble) and XL (lipid soluble), is very effective for two reasons: one, it is very stable [as a benzylidene camphor derivative], and two, because it absorbs light at a broader range of UVA wavelengths than many other chemical sunscreens.
After absorbing light from this broad spectrum, ecamsule undergoes photoisomerization, followed by photoexcitation, which means that it causes for UV light to be released as thermal energy, rather than allowing for UV light to be absorbed into the skin. Additionally, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL used together are even more stable than each alone. However, Mexoryl XL is often far too oily for some with sensitive skin, and so only Mexoryl SX is featured in L’Oréal products sold in the U.S.
LaRoche-Posay Anthelios SX contains only Mexoryl SX, the form of Mexoryl that is less oily than Mexoryl XL. However, LaRoche-Posay Anthelios SX has a whopping 3% ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), compared with only 2% in L’Oréal Revitalift UV and most other Mexoryl products.
In Summary: Mexoryl is a great UVA blocker and LaRoche-Posay Anthelios SX is certainly a first-rate UVA sunblock. It is also more cosmetically-appealing than zinc oxide.
Best with Avobenzone: Supergoop! Everyday Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50
Homosalate is actually part of the salicylate family, like salicylic acid. Studies show that it can help limit inflammation, resulting in reduced redness in the skin (European Journal of Pharmacology). It’s also so effective that it is one of the active ingredients in the standard sunscreen formulation the FDA uses to test the SPF of other sunscreens (FDA).
Avobenzone sometimes gets a bad rap, because it is unstable when it is used alone and exposed to light (International Journal of Pharmacology). However, when avobenzone is paired with octisalate, it is more stable. Both are UVB filters; when paired with avobenzone, they create a broad-spectrum protectant against harmful radiation (JAAD).
In Summary: Overall, Supergoop Everyday Sunscreen Broad Spectrum is cosmetically-appealing and has popular chemical sunscreens like avobenzone and homosalate to back up its use.
Got skin care questions? Email me at nicki[at]futurederm[dot]com or check us out on Instagram!
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