Let’s Compare SPFs – Which One Is Right for You?

Just SOME of the SPF options from the sunscreen aisle at my local Walmart

Just SOME of the SPF options from the sunscreen aisle at my local Walmart

I recently stood in front of this display at my local Wal-Mart for like 10+ minutes (incidentally way more time than I wanna spend at any part of Wal-Mart) looking at sunscreens. As I pondered various SPFs, another woman and her young daughter approached. She was similarly perplexed by the options, and she asked my advice for a kid-friendly SPF because she’d previously purchased a sunscreen that caused an allergic reaction in her daughter. We talked for a while and she mentioned how confusing finding a suitable sunscreen had become. We discussed the things she tried and her daughter’s reaction. She ultimately chose a gentle mineral (or physical) sunscreen and thanked me for the advice.

A Brief Sunscreen Primer:
Have you also noticed that sunscreen shopping has become pretty overwhelming lately? There are just SO many options out there, and all of them claim to offer sufficient protection and superior performance. It’s tempting to grab whatever is on sale or whichever bottle looks the best on the sunscreen display. Unfortunately, that’s not always a wise way to go. As with the food we eat and the beverages we drink, it pays to read the ingredient lists on sunscreens you are considering purchasing. In fact, this is especially true with sunscreen “active ingredients.” There’s a whole lot to keep in mind when sunscreen shopping, and there’s a bunch of terminology to learn. A key SPF term is “broad-spectrum” meaning the product protects against both UVB and UVA rays. UVB rays are the ones that cause skin to get red, burn or tan. UVA rays are the really nasty ones that are primarily responsible for aging, wrinkles, sagging skin and (scariest of all) skin cancer (Source).

There are 2 categories of broad-spectrum sunscreen active ingredients – mineral (AKA “physical”) sunscreens and chemical (AKA “synthetic”) sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens are generally gentler; are best for children (6 months and older) and those with allergies and sensitive skin; and work by creating a physical barrier between skin and the sun. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are mineral sunscreen actives, and most mineral sunscreens include both these ingredients in combination. Unfortunately, mineral sunscreens tend to leave a white or grayish cast on the skin and can affect makeup performance, and some people with acne may break out after using them. Synthetic or chemical sunscreen actives include avobenzone, Mexoryl SX, and Tinosorb. These ingredients dissolve into the skin more readily (that’s how they work) and are therefore easier to use under or in makeup products. However, sensitive skins, those with allergies or very young children may react negatively (think stinging skin or watery eyes) to chemical sunscreens especially when applied on the face or near the eyes. So, both mineral and chemical actives have their pluses and minuses.

The Wal-Mart encounter got me thinking that it would be helpful to create an easy-to-read info sheet comparing reasonably priced sunscreens, so that is my intent. Below I have listed a dozen sunscreen options. Each option was selected based on the following criteria: 1.) Must have broad-spectrum sun protection. 2.) Face products have an SPF rating of 45 or higher; lip SPFs a rating of 25 or higher. 3.) All sunscreens must cost $15 or less. I have listed each product by name; SPF rating; the amount of product you get; prices points from 3 selected retailers (I chose ULTA; Wal-Mart and Amazon.com); and have included brief product summaries based on my own product testing; the benefits and limitations of each (IMO); a few other comments on each product (e.g., how the product performs under makeup, if it has fragrance, is suitable for children, etc.); and my thoughts as to who may be the best person/persons in your family to use this product.

N.B. Products with an asterisk ‘*’ are brands carrying the official Seal of Approval of the International Skin Cancer Foundation (Source). That’s a whole bunch of points to consider! So, let’s get started. First the mineral-based sunscreens:

Mineral sunscreen actives are titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These products are often considered gentler and labeled for sensitive skin, children or babies.

Mineral sunscreen actives are titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These products are often considered gentler and labeled for sensitive skin or very young children.

1. Neutrogena Pure & Free Liquid Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF50* (1.4 oz.). This fragrance-free all-mineral sunscreen uses 5% titanium dioxide and 3% zinc oxide to provide broad-spectrum coverage but includes minimal other good-for-skin ingredients. Price points as follows: Not currently available at ULTA (though I’ve previously purchased in-store at ULTA, so you may check your local store); available for $11.80 from Wal-Mart; and $11.79 from Amazon. This product has the thinnest texture (almost watery) of any mineral sunscreen I tested. But even if you shake it up really well, it initially has a grainy feel that goes away as you rub the product into your skin. I found the graininess somewhat irritating and imagine babies and those with very sensitive skin would as well. It has a very minimal white cast and performs fairly well under makeup, again the best of any mineral sunscreen I reviewed here. As with all similar products, you must be careful to rub in these sunscreens around the tricky areas (hairline, brows, nostrils, any dry patches, etc.). With the exception of the initially grainy texture, I would highly recommend this product for all family members.

2. Cerave Sunscreen Broad Specrum Stick SPF50* (0.47 oz.). Not currently available from ULTA; available for $10.05 from Wal-Mart; and $9.99 from Amazon. This fragrance-free all-mineral sunscreen stick includes a couple of great skin-beneficial ingredients – ceramides (typical of Cerave) and hyaluronic acid but no antioxidants (just as well given the stick-style of this product. Antioxidants would be rendered useless shortly after opening). This product uses a whopping 6% titanium dioxide and 4.7% zinc oxide! With that level of mineral actives, you would expect it to be opaque, and it definitely is. This reminds me of those solid white strips of sunscreen lifeguards would sport back in the day. It’s not a product I’d use on my face before applying makeup. But it’s great for babies or young children as long as the child is willing to let you take the time to rub in the sunscreen. Given the size and style, it works really well stashed in a purse or makeup bag for on-the-go or spot applications of small areas (but again, probably not over makeup), as long as you’re able to tolerate some white patchy areas after application. Speaking of size, it’s pretty pricey given the amount you get, so keep that in mind as well.

3. Cerave Broad Spectrum Face Lotion with InVisibleZinc SPF50* (2 oz.) This all-mineral sunscreen is available for $14.99 from ULTA; for $12.12 from Wal-Mart; and for $7.99 from Amazon. As with Cerave’s stick option (above), this one is also fragrance-free and features actives titanium dioxide (present here in 4.9%) and zinc oxide (at 4.7%), the company’s star ingredient ceramides (present here in several forms) along with hyaluronic acid, peptides and beeswax. The good news is that Cerave included some antioxidants in both this formulation and the similar Cerave Sunscreen Broad Spectrum Body Lotion SPF50. The antioxidants can help provide further skin-protection against free radical damage (for more on antioxidants check out this article and recipe). This product contains Vitamin C, Niacinamide and small amounts of Vitamin E. This is a thicker lotion and leaves a definite white cast on application that takes significant time and effort to rub into skin. It works well for babies and young children, those with very sensitive skin, or anyone willing to take the time to rub this lotion into the skin. Just keep in mind that it will affect makeup performance and appearance.

4. Neutrogena pure & free baby sunscreen with purescreen SPF 60+* (3 oz.) Priced at $11.99 from ULTA.com; at $9.42 from Wal-Mart; and $13.99 from Amazon. This is a fragrance-free product featuring all mineral sunscreens (4.9% Titanium Dioxide; and 4.7% Zinc Oxide). Neutrogena also included Vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid), oat kernel extract and beeswax for hydration. But inexplicably, the company also included a preservative (methylisothiazolinone)+++ which, as explained below can cause sensitizing reactions when included in leave-on skincare products. This product has a thicker texture and leaves a white cast that, while less noticeable after a few minutes, may alter the color, performance of makeup. The problematic preservative in this sunscreen is the real deal-breaker here and makes this one a no-go for children and anyone with sensitive skin. I cannot recommend this product for any member of the family. Just check out the Amazon.com reviews! You’ll be convinced to go elsewhere for SPF protection. I’d suggest another Neutrogena option, Pure & Free Liquid Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF50 or Cerave’s Broad Spectrum Face Lotion with InVisibleZinc SPF50 (both above) as far superior. Both offer broad-spectrum, all-mineral SPF50 protection more appropriate for young children’s sensitive skin. Any mineral sunscreen is going to leave some white cast behind (these 2 options included), but both are far better suited to babies and young children and do not include any glaringly problematic ingredients.
+++Per this product’s ingredient list, this product contains an ingredient called methylisothiazolinone, a preservative known to cause sensitive reactions in skincare products. Here’s the link to the Beautypedia summary. Additional Sources: Actas Dermo-Sifiliograficas, January-February 2009, pages 53–60; Archives of Dermatological Research, February 2007, pages 427–437; and Contact Dermatitis, October 2005, pages 226–233).

Moving onto to the chemical sunscreens:

Synthetic or chemical sunscreens work by dissolving into the skin, so they are less likely than mineral actives to disrupt makeup application or leave whitish cast on the skin after applying. But they may cause a reaction in sensitive individual, including children.

Synthetic or chemical sunscreens work by dissolving into the skin, so they are less likely than mineral actives to disrupt makeup application or leave whitish cast on the skin after applying. But they may cause a reaction in sensitive individual, including children.

5. Coppertone Oil-Free Face Sunscreen Lotion SPF50* (3 oz.). This product is not currently available online from ULTA; it is available for $6.87 from Wal-Mart; and for $11.82 from Amazon. This fragrance-free all lotion-style sunscreen is surprising emollient while still managing to absorb quickly and without leaving noticeable residue or cast. It performs well under makeup. But it’s worth noting that the all-chemical sunscreen actives may provoke some reaction among sensitive individuals. Avobenzone is present (here in 3%) for UVA protection along with other standard UVB chemical actives (Homesalate 15%; Octisalate 5%; Octocrylene 10%; Oxybenzone 6%). Coppertone also included minimal amounts of palmitic acid (an emollient) & some vitamin E (tocpherol). I really like this product for its reasonable price and excellent performance under makeup. I recommend it for adults and those without sensitive skin, especially those in need of a high SPF.

6. L’Oreal Silky Sheer Face Lotion Sunscreen SPF50+ Antioxidants (1.7 oz.) Not currently available from ULTA; available for $12.96 from Wal-Mart (though out of stock at time of this writing); and available for $11.99 from Amazon. This is a fragrance-free all synthetic (chemical) sunscreen which includes 3% Avobenzone for broad-spectrum protection along with Homesalate (15%); Octisalate (5%); Octocrylene (5%); and Oxybenzone (6%), all UVB protectants. The antioxidants referenced in the title are not present in large amounts. It has a thin, almost watery texture that blends in quickly, leaving no color texture behind. I find that it performs well under makeup and does not pill, crack or “bunch up” in my pores or around my eyebrows, hairline, nostrils etc. Honestly, I really like this product. I was saddened to read (among Amazon reviews) that this product may be discontinued. That would explain the difficulty I had in repurchasing a new bottle. 😟 I hate when cosmetic companies discontinue great products. If you’re able to get your hands on this stuff, it’s best for pre-makeup application, for those without sensitive skin (due to synthetic actives) or for stashing in the car to protect hands, arms, other areas you may have forgotten to cover with SPF or for additional SPF touch-ups throughout the day.

7. Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid Sunscreen SPF70* (1.4 oz.). This very high liquid SPF is priced at $12.99 from ULTA; and is available for $10.77 from Wal-Mart; and for $11.99 from Amazon. This very thin (almost watery) liquid sunscreen uses all synthetic actives including 3% avobenzone for UVA protection as well as 10% Homesalate; 5% Octisalate; 7.5% Octocrylene; and 5% Oxybenzone (all for UVB protection). The thin, watery texture dissolves almost immediately after application with minimal rubbing required, making it ideal for pre-makeup application. And the higher SPF means if you’re the type of person who tends to under-apply your sunscreen, this may be the product for you, as long as you’re not allergic or sensitive to chemical sunscreens. There’s one catch. This product has an odd chemical smell that is quite noticeable on application and for about 5 minutes thereafter. It doesn’t bother me tremendously (I’m pretty sensitive to smells), but I am definitely aware of it until it dissipates (after about 5 minutes). Just something to keep in mind. Because of the chemical actives, I would not recommend this for young children. But for adults without sensitive skin or allergies to chemical sunscreens, this is a great option!

8. Jason Sun Kids Sunscreen SPF45 (4 oz.). Jason Sun is not currently available from ULTA. But it is currently available at Wal-Mart for $9.67, and it is available for $9.19 from Amazon. A little background, Hubs has used and enjoyed this product for several years. I’ve always commented on how much I enjoy it when he uses it because I like the smell of it. So first thing to know about this sunscreen is that it has a really obvious scent. We’re talking powerful fragrance. It’s pleasant, but it’s obviously there. So if you’re bothered by fragrance, skip this sunscreen. And I think it’s kinda weird for JÃSÖN® a company which claims to be safe and gentle, to produce such a fragranced product under the name “Kids.” But I digress. I was satisfied with Hubs’ usage of the product because it’s not an unpleasant smell (it smells a little like Hubs bathed with a bottle of old-school Panama Jack Tanning Oil), and I’m always glad when he uses sunscreen. I always considered the smell as my confirmation that Hubs was protected. So when I began researching this product for this post, I was mortified to discover that Beautypedia review indicated this product does NOT provide broad-spectrum protection. Houston, we have a huge problem (asking self why I never checked the Beautypedia review before and how I could have allowed Hubs to be walking around with sub-par sun protection for so long)! However, on closer inspection of the actual product ingredient list, I noticed that the Beautypedia review did not include all the active ingredients and specifically does not include: 3% butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, AKA avobenzone which is in fact a broad-spectrum sunscreen active.

(here's the pic)

(here’s the pic)


So, it appears to me that this product does, in fact, offer broad-spectrum sun protection. And again, I say that this broad-spectrum sunscreen bit is a tricky business. This product dissolves fairly quickly leaving minimal white cast behind. Hubs has really enjoyed wearing it and has no complaints. I have applied from my neck down and had no negative reactions or problems. However, that doesn’t make this a good option for everyone, especially children. It’s still an all-chemical sunscreen with a strong fragrance. If you’re not sensitive to chemical sunscreens or fragrance, this may be an option for you.

Here’s a few more sun protection products I really like. These products are not as widely available as those above. But they’re inexpensive and offer broad-spectrum sun protection. First let’s talk about lips. One of my worst habits (when it comes to sun protection, I have lots of other bad habits not particularly germane to this post) is neglecting my lips. I’ll admit, years, decades went by before I recognized the importance of applying sunscreen on my lips. Even when I started going regularly to the dermatologist for anti-aging treatments, using prescription-strength skincare, etc. it just never occurred to me that I needed to protect my lips. Weird right? Then one day at a family reunion, I noticed several of my older relatives had small dark greyish, almost black moles or growths on their lips I’d never previously noticed. That was enough to convince me to always apply sunscreen to my lips prior to lipstick, gloss, whatever type of color products I may use that day. Here are my current lip protection favs:

9. Almay Age Essentials Lip Treatment $12.99 at ULTA and not yet available at Wal-Mart and Amazon. It’s a clear balm includes several chemical sunscreens, including 3% avobenzone for broad-spectrum protection (N.B. it’s generally preferable to use chemical sunscreens in lip products unless you have an allergy to synthetic sunscreens). This product comes in traditional twist-up lipstick style container (similar to Maybelline’s Baby Lips) but it’s thicker than a traditional chapstick. The stick is thicker primarily because it has what Almay calls an “anti-aging” pink center core which contains primarily emollients (glycerin, fatty acids, waxes, etc.) and small amounts of antioxidants and peptides. The lovely and talented Tati reviews this product briefly here.

Be sure to check out that video for more info on this and other new drugstore products. This product goes on sheer but is pretty shiny so keep that in mind if that’s a problem for you. It may be a deal-breaker for men (some of whom will probably dislike the lipstick-like appearance of this product as well).

10. If you’re into a traditional chapstick style, check out Australian Gold’s Face Guard Stick SPF50 $7.20 at Amazon at Wal-Mart. It is not currently available at ULTA. This is a simple, straight-forward sunscreen without fragrance or frills (not additional ingredients to mention). It features the standard chemical sunscreens and 3% avobenzone as primary UVA protection and can be used on the lips, ears and small areas like tattoos, or anywhere that needs extra protection. I wouldn’t use it on a baby unless you know that baby can tolerate chemical sunscreens without reaction or allergy.

11. If you’re into more emollient, Vaseline-style lip treatments, consider Jack Black Intense Therapy Lip Balms SPF25. These scented/flavored lip balms are available for $7.50 from ULTA; and Amazon.com. This product includes 3% avobenzone sunscreen among other chemical actives and comes in several flavors like “grapefruit & shea butter” (ULTA sells only 3 flavors). It also has several good-for-you ingredients like Green Tea extract, Shea butter and Avocado oil. However, I’d be concerned about the amount of Mint oil it includes (it’s pretty high on the ingredient list). Though Mint oil is included in a number of lip products these days (especially those claiming to “plump” lips), it’s a potential skin irritant (Source). And, I personally prefer the chapstick-style like Almay’s product above because it’s easier to apply lipstick over it. But this product works well as a stand-alone gloss or over a lipstain.

12. And finally – Paula’s Choice Extra Care Non-Greasy Sunscreen SPF50* (5 oz.) is a fragrance-free lotion-style sunscreen that I’ve enjoyed for years. It’s available for $17 at Paulaschoice.com. Hint: Paula’s Choice routinely offers email exclusive sales (like the current 20% off all products anniversary sale). This particular PC sunscreen features several synthetic (chemical) sunscreens including UVA active avobenzone (3%) as well as several antioxidants (e.g., multiple forms of Vitamin E, Vitamins A and C) along with an anti-inflammatory agent and aloe. This is a wonderfully-formulated chemical-based sunscreen that absorbs quickly, leaving no white cast or residue behind. It is fragrance-free and has never caused me any tearing or allergic reaction. It does cost more than $15 without the discounts. But I’m including it in the list because you can frequently get it for $15 or so and because it has been my go-to high SPF product for at least 5 years now. I really love it! This product is also available for $17 at Dermstore.com AND you can routinely save 10% on many brands (including Paula’s Choice) by creating a free Dermstore account and a personal “favorites” list. You can occasionally find Paula’s Choice products at Amazon. And I found this product for $19.50 + $5 shipping with very limited availability here. P.S. Paula’s Choice also makes a chapstick-style lip sunscreen (billed as a men’s product) which is marvelous and fairly economical. Check that out here.

BTW, if it seems like I favor Paula’s Choice products, it’s because I do. I’ve learned so much about skincare, product ingredients and chemistry, and the way the cosmetics industry works from reading Paula Begoun’s books and articles. Her products (especially antioxidants and sunscreens) perform equal to, in many cases superior to super expensive products you’d purchase in department stores or physicians offices. I strongly recommend Beautypedia to anyone looking to improve their beauty IQ!

Summary: There are many, many reliable and well-formulated sunscreens in all price ranges, far too many to review here. When it comes to choosing a sunscreen, the most important factors to consider are, in descending order of importance: 1.) Does it provide broad-spectrum sun protection (i.e. does it contain at least 1 of the following: avobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, Mexoryl SX, or Tinosorb)? 2.) Will you use the product in sufficient quantities to get full benefit? 3.) Does the product contain any problematic or objectionable ingredients? and finally 4.) Does the product provide any additional benefits or ingredients like antioxidants, skin-identical ingredients, etc.? I hope this post has been helpful as you prepare to shop for sunscreens this summer.

Beauty Video Resource of the Day:
You may already know how much I adore the wonderfully open and honest Angie from Hot & Flashy. She recently released her 2016 video rating best mineral sunscreens of the year, and I think it’s one of her best videos ever. This year’s video is especially awesome because Angie included a visual aid to demonstrate exactly how much sunscreen the typical person is using versus how much sunscreen manufacturers assume we’re using when they issue the SPF ratings for each product as well as the amount the FDA recommends we use for sufficient sun protection. Here’s a preview: you’re not using enough!

Wisdom for the Day:
Yours (oh God) is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun. You have fixed all the boundaries of the earth; you have made summer and winter.
~Psalm 74:16-17 (English Standard Version)
Read more here.

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