This article was medically reviewed by Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board.
No matter the forecast, sunscreen is the one step you should never skip before heading outdoors for the day. Applying (and reapplying!) SPF protects your skin from the sun’s powerful UV rays, minimizing your risk of painful sunburns, skin cancer, and premature signs of aging, such as dark spots and wrinkles.
But shopping for the best sunscreen is extremely overwhelming. Do you go for chemical or physical sunscreens? Lotions or sprays? That’s why Prevention consulted top dermatologists to recommend the best sunscreens of 2021. Whether you’re looking for the best natural sunscreen, the best sunscreen for babies and kids, tinted sunscreens, or the perfect SPF just for your face, there’s an option for you.
Important reminder: Sunscreen can expire, which makes it less effective. Even if last year’s bottle hasn’t hit its expiration date, that date is only valid if the product is stored in a cool, dry place, says board-certified dermatologist Lauren Ploch, M.D., fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). So, be prepared to pick up a fresh bottle for the warmer months ahead.
How to choose (and use) the best sunscreen for your skin
Look for broad spectrum on the label: This ensures your SPF protects against both harmful UVA and UVB rays. (UVA rays prematurely age skin and UVB rays burn; both can cause skin cancer.) Our experts recommend choosing SPF 30 or higher.
Go for water-resistant options: Even if you won’t be jumping in for a swim, a water-resistant sunscreen will stay on longer while you’re sweating. If you are doing extensive outdoor activity, choose an SPF of 50 or higher to ensure you stay protected, recommends Henry W. Lim, M.D., immediate past president of the AAD.
When in doubt, choose lotions: They’re easy to apply generously and evenly—which is key in order for them to work effectively. If you use a stick sunscreen, it requires at least four swipes on each area of the skin to get the job done. On the other hand, many “sprays are inconsistent” Dr. Ploch says. If you opt for a spray, be sure to apply an even coat and rub in well.
Formula matters: Physical or mineral sunscreens (made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) sit on top of the skin and deflect UV rays, while chemical sunscreens (made with ingredients like oxybenzone or avobenzone) work by absorbing them. If your skin is sensitive or acne-prone, mineral sunscreens are typically your best bet, says Ramsey Markus, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Westside Dermatology. Plus, they’re a great option if you prefer a more “natural” product (they’re reef-safe!). “All that said, there is no denying that the chemical sunscreens are more transparent, which sometimes trumps everything. It’s really a personal choice more than anything,” he says.
Rub it in well: “Apply the amount of sunscreen you can rub in first,” says Heidi Waldorf, M.D., founder of Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics. “Let it sink in, then apply a second time. That’s the easiest way to get the full recommended amount of sunscreen to ensure you get the protection on the label.” Ideally, you want to apply a shot glass-sized amount to your whole body and you should always reapply every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
Too much to keep in mind? We did the work for you and rounded up the best sunscreens of 2020, all recommended by board-certified dermatologists.
“I tell patients to choose a product with the highest SPF possible,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “In the real world, we do not apply as much sunscreen as we should. Starting out with a higher SPF acts as an insurance policy to give the highest level of protection for the longest period of time.” This non-greasy, fast-absorbing option from Neutrogena will get the job done during those long beach days.
Recommended by several dermatologists we spoke to, this fragrance- and paraben-free lotion feels lightweight on the skin and won’t clog pores, making it a top choice for anyone with acne-prone skin, says board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon Joel Schlessinger, M.D., president of LovelySkin.com. What’s more, it’s formulated with hyaluronic acid (a humectant that pulls water to the skin) for an extra dose of hydration. “Ninety-nine percent of patients I recommend it to say it’s the best sunscreen they have ever used,” adds Dr. Markus.
This mineral sunscreen from Blue Lizard is super gentle, since it’s free of potentially irritating chemicals, parabens, and fragrances. “My patients with the most sensitive skin are able to tolerate this,” Dr. Ploch says. “Plus, the bottle turns blue when there is UV exposure, so it’s a great reminder to reapply.” Water-resistant for up to 40 minutes, it soaks in quickly and doesn’t have a strong sunscreen smell.
“This oil-free, paraben-free, noncomedogenic sunscreen contains the anti-inflammatory antioxidant niacinamide, as well as cermamides, which help the skin to retain moisture,” says Meghan Feely, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New Jersey and New York City who serves as a clinical instructor at Mount Sinai. CeraVe’s gentle mineral formula is a great go-to option for both your body and face, as it doesn’t feel heavy and provides top-notch broad spectrum protection.
This oil-free and noncomedogenic sunscreen from Aveeno earns a stamp of approval from Dr. Feely. The super-hydrating lotion keeps skin smooth and soft without feeling heavy. “This sunscreen is enriched with colloidal oatmeal to help hydrate and protect the skin barrier. It can be used by anyone, including people who have dry skin or eczema,” adds Dr. Zeichner.
“This is one of my favorite broad spectrum, cosmetically elegant sunscreens for face and body,” says Shari Marchbein, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Downtown Dermatology in New York City. The best part? It’s seriously fast-absorbing, so it’s easy to apply all over the body without the greasy feeling.
Applying a lip balm with SPF is crucial year-round, since your lips have very thin skin with little melanin, making them more susceptible to sun damage. This fragrance-free, mineral lip sunscreen is even gentle enough for people with eczema, says Julia Tzu, M.D., founder and medical director of Wall Street Dermatology. It’s dermatologist-tested, noncomedogenic, and free of chemicals, flavoring, dyes, and parabens. Water-resistant for 80 minutes, it can be used on both your body and face.
It’s hard to find a stick sunscreen that rubs in clear, but this one earns a stamp of approval from board-certified dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd, M.D., director of ethnic skin care for the University of Miami Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery. The silky, lightweight formula has a matte finish, and the packaging is perfect for on-the-go use. (Remember: Give it a few swipes on each area of application.)
If you have a darker skin tone, finding a sunscreen that doesn’t leave white streaks behind can be a struggle—but this lightweight Supergoop! formula has you covered. Not only does it apply completely sheer, but it’s also fragrance- and oil-free. “This brand is cosmetically elegant, easy to layer, and great on oily, combination, or dry skin,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and member of Prevention’s Medical Review Board.
This broad spectrum mineral sunscreen contains antioxidants (such as vitamin C and green tea) to provide an extra dose of protection against skin-damaging free radicals. The oil- and fragrance- free lotion also works wonders on dry skin, thanks to a pro blend of moisturizing humectants (which attract water to the skin) and ceramides (natural fats that help form the skin barrier and retain moisture). Noncomedogenic, ultra-gentle, and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, it’s also a safe sunscreen for kids.
If you tend to prefer a spray sunscreen, go for this one from EltaMD, says Caroline Chang, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and member of the Prevention Medical Review Board. “It’s not a traditional spray, since it sprays on white but rubs in clear, so it’s easier to ensure you get adequate coverage,” she says. (Make sure you spray it away from your face, so you don’t inhale it.)
This brush-on formula comes in handy when you need to reapply over makeup or throw an SPF in your travel bag, says Dr. Marchbein. The lightweight, mineral powder sunscreen offers a sheer layer of coverage, won’t irritate sensitive or acne-prone skin, and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It also comes in a range of shades, from fair to deep.
Just note: “Powder SPF should not be your primary form of sunscreen and is best used for touch-ups during day-to-day sun exposure,” says Dr. Marchbein.
Dr. Markus, who is allergic to chemical filters himself, recommends this Neutrogena moisturizer with SPF 50 for people with sensitive skin. All you need is a thin layer, and you don’t have to worry about a white cast, he says. Free of chemicals, oils, and fragrances, the gentle formula absorbs quickly into the skin, and doesn’t leave behind that sticky residue sunscreen is known for. Like any SPF, just remember that you should reapply every two hours (even though it’s marketed as a moisturizer).
Dr. Gohara likes this tinted sunscreen because it offers broad spectrum protection, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and beneficial antioxidants, all while a sheer tint evens out the skin tone and blurs pesky imperfections. Oil- and fragrance-free, the lightweight, noncomedogenic formula effortlessly layers on top of other products and makes a great primer if you choose to add BB cream or foundation for additional coverage.
This unique sunscreen contains photolyase (a.k.a., DNA enzymes that repair sun damage) nourishing vitamin E, and zinc oxide to protect the skin from harmful UV rays and premature aging. “It provides hydration without feeling slick, so it works for women and men, all skin types, and skin colors,” says Dr. Waldorf. Plus, she says it “rubs in smoothly and invisibly.”
How do I choose the best sunscreen for my face?
The best sunscreen for your face is the one you apply consistently—it’s the best thing you can do to protect your skin against cancer and premature wrinkles. An SPF for your body will work the same way on your face, but they can feel heavy and slick. Especially for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin, mineral-based formulas will reduce the risk of irritation or clogged pores. (Check out our favorite sunscreens for acne-prone skin here.)
How do I choose the best sunscreen for my kids?
Your babies and kids have thinner skin, meaning they’re more prone to irritation from chemical ingredients. Choose mineral-based SPF lotions and apply them liberally. It’s important to note that both both the AAD and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend keeping your infant out of the sun (and avoiding sunscreen if you can) if he or she is less than six months old. Instead, opt for sun-protective clothing—like pants, hats, and sunglasses—to avoid premature sun damage. Find our top sunscreen picks for kids here.
How often should I reapply sunscreen?
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying sunscreen 30 minutes before heading outdoors. Aim to apply a shot glass-sized amount to your whole body, reapplying the same amount every two hours. It’s also crucial to reapply immediately after you go for a swim, sweat heavily, or dry yourself off with a towel.
How can I tell if my sunscreen is expired?
Like any other skincare product, sunscreen has an expiration date. If one is not listed on the product, write the date of purchase on the bottle—it should maintain its original strength for at least three years, per the FDA’s standards.
However, your sunscreen can actually go bad before this time, especially if it sits in the heat or direct light (very likely!). Any changes in formula—funky smells, colors, or texture—should be your sign to toss it. Using an expired sunscreen is risky and can increase your risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
Do people with darker skin tones need sunscreen?
Yes. People with darker complexions still need to apply sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and hyperpigmentation. Many sunscreens, however, are notorious for leaving white streaks. To find a melanin-friendly formula, check out our top sunscreens for darker skin—all approved by dermatologists of color.
Can sunscreen ever be bad for you?
Both chemical and mineral sunscreens effectively protect the skin, but zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are found in mineral formulas, are the only two sunscreen ingredients currently “generally recognized as safe,” by the FDA.
That doesn’t mean chemical sunscreens are classified as dangerous, explains Dr. Feely. It just means that the FDA needs to collect more data to ensure the rest of the ingredients meet their safety standards. In particular, the use of oxybenzone in sunscreen has drawn safety concerns, as it has been detected in human blood and breast milk—as well as coral reefs. However, the AAD maintains that sunscreens containing chemical filters are still safe to use when it comes to human health in adults.
Additional reporting by Brittany Risher