This is a question that I am asked frequently, and the answer is: one that you love enough to use every single day, rain or shine AND that protects you properly. So, how to choose? Let’s start with the basics.
Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients
All sunscreens contain active ingredients to shield your skin from the sun’s damaging UVB and UVA rays. These ingredients can be grouped into 2 categories: physical or inorganic, and chemical or organic (we’re talking organic chemistry here, not organic vegetables!). What is the difference? As the name implies, physical sunscreens shield your skin by blocking the sun’s rays physically- that means reflecting and refracting the UVB and UVA rays.
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It is a multiplier- in a sense, it tells you how much longer the product, when perfectly applied, allows you to stay in the sun before you will burn. Also, the higher the SPF, the less UVB rays it allows through (when perfectly applied). The catch is, none of us apply our sunscreen perfectly! I could devote an entire post to this, but for now, suffice it to say that you need to apply twice as much as you think you do. This is also part of the basis for the recommendation for frequent re-application.
The SPF only tells you how well a product protects from UVB. In order to know if it protects from UVA, in Canada, look for the words “broad spectrum” and “UVA and UVB”. You can also search for the European symbol, which is UVA within a circle. This is featured on European products such as La Roche-Posay Anthelios and Vichy. Products not featuring this symbol are not necessarily inferior, as it is not a Canadian requirement to have this symbol, but this symbol does tell you that you are getting high quality UVA protection. Brands that I trust for their UVA protection who do not feature this symbol include Neutrogena, Colorescience, Elta MD, and SkinMedica. You can also look for the CDA logo.
The two physical ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These ingredients in their raw form are white and pasty, so in modern sunscreens they are micronized to form smaller particles. This actually allows them to perform as both physical AND chemical sunscreens, but fear not- even micronized zinc and titanium dioxide are not absorbed past the dead layer of skin cells.
The chemical sunscreen ingredients are, well, everything else! Octinoxate, avobenzone, mexoryl XL, octocrylene… to name but a few. These ingredients allow for a nice cosmetic finish as they are transparent. Some are engineered to shield against UVA, and some to shield against UVB, and some both, so products contain a mixture of chemical (and sometimes physical) ingredients to get broad coverage. The right mix of ingredients can also offer superior UVA coverage.
Are there dangers associated with Chemical Sunscreens?
There have been 2 key publications in the last few years that showed that chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed to a measurable extent. There are no known harmful effects on humans of this absorption, but the authors of these papers point out that this warrants further study. Chemical sunscreens, particularly oxybenzone and octinoxate have been implicated in the bleaching of coral reefs and have been banned in some jurisdictions such as Hawaii (none in Canada). The bleaching of coral reefs is a complex problem and multiple factors such as climate change and increasing ocean salinity play a role, but this is important to keep in mind when traveling. The bottom line for use within Canada for now is that benefit (a least to humans) outweighs harms, and that further investigation is needed. When traveling, be aware if any ingredients are banned. Use as much sun-protective clothing and swim-wear as possible, and stick to physical sunscreens/ chemical sunscreens that avoid banned ingredients.
How do I choose?
Once you have narrowed down to trusted products with good coverage, consider your skin type and activity level. Are you looking for an every day product? Do you need water resistance? Are you acne-prone? Here are some pro tips for categories I am asked about frequently:
Look for a minimum SPF of 30, ideally 40 or above. You do not necessarily need a water-resistant formula. My favourite options are EltaMD UV Daily SPF 40 (tinted or non-tinted), Colorescience Face Shield SPF 50, and La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL Lotion SPF 30 and CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion SPF 30.
You may be using products that render your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so aim for a minimum SPF of 40. My faves: La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL Dry Touch SPF 60, EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46 (available in tinted and non-tinted) and Colourescience All-Calm SPF 50.
Rosacea-Prone and Sensitive Skin
For sensitive skin conditions like rosacea and atopic dermatitis, physical sunscreens tend to be better tolerated, so look for products with only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide listed as their active ingredients. Colorescience’s All-Calm SPF 50 is specially formulated for rosacea and acne-prone skin, with a tint to help conceal redness. Avène Mineral Fluid SPF 50+ is available in a clear and tinted- if neither is the right shade for you, try mixing them to get the right tone. Sun protection is especially important for sensitive skin conditions so it is important to find a sunscreen that agrees with your skin.
If you have melasma, or any type of facial pigmentation, choose a high-SPF tinted sunscreen. This is because both UV and visible light play a role in pigment darkening, and visible light can only be filtered by an opaque product. Iron oxide is the ideal ingredient for this. Try Colourescience’s Even-Up SPF 50, specially formulated for pigmentary concerns, or Face Shield SPF 50. Another option is to use the Colorescience Brush-On SPF 50 over your favourite non-tinted sunscreen. EltaMD sunscreens are also available in tinted options. Avène Mineral Fluid SPF 50 and La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Ultra Fluid SPF 50 are also good choices.
Summer is finally here! Whatever you love, be it paddle boarding, swimming in the lake or ocean, or a splash in the family pool, you’ll need excellent water resistance. I cannot emphasize enough: start with sun protective clothing. Surf shops, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC.ca) and Coolibar.com are great places to find UPF 50 rash guards, swim tops and yes, even swim tights! These are a must-have for water sports such as paddling and snorkeling. For areas you can’t cover up, I love: EltaMD UV Sport SPF 50, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Fluid SPF 50+ Body and Vichy Idéal Soleil Sport SPF 60.
I hear you: you need a sunscreen that stays put and doesn’t run into your eyes. My husband loves EltaMD UV Sport SPF 50 for this purpose. La Roche-Posay also has a new patented Netlock technology in their Anthelios Ultra-Fluid SPF 50+ Body, designed to keep your sunscreen exactly where you put it. Their Anthelios Mist SPF 50+ for body is also great for transition stations for triathletes or for quick application- as with any spray sunscreen, be sure to apply a lot- at least 4 back and forth per limb and rub in for even coverage. Do not spray onto the face or inhale- spray onto your hands and apply to the face.
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50. This purely mineral (physical) powdered sunscreen is the perfect matte finish to your makeup, and adds sun protection. Add throughout the day to top-up your SPF without having to re-apply cream. It is water-resistant, so can be used every day and at the beach. This is one to never leave home without!
It is so important to protect your lips from UV rays as well. Some products I love are the Anthelios Stick SPF 60 by La Roche-Posay, the Vichy Idéal Soleil SPF 60 stick, and the Colorescience Lip Shine SPF 35, available in 4 fun colours: pink, coral, champagne and rose.
Sun protection remains the most evidence-based element in your skin care routine. From avoiding lines and pigmentation, to preventing skin cancer, the importance of daily sun protection cannot be over stated. Nothing looks as good on your future skin as sunscreen today!
If you are still in need of guidance or would like to see our range of carefully selected products, we would love to help you- just scroll down and let’s get started.