12th August, 20208 min read

What's the best type of sunscreen to use?

Medical reviewer:
Healthily's medical team
Healthily's medical team
Georgina Newman
Georgina Newman
Last reviewed: 13/08/2020
Medically reviewed

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It can take just 15 minutes for the sun to damage your skin, increasing your risk of sunburn. If this happens regularly, your risk of skin damage and skin cancer may also rise.

You can lower this risk by wearing sunscreen when you go outside. There are 2 types of sunscreen for you to choose from:

  • chemical sunscreens — these contain chemicals that absorb the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays
  • physical sunscreens or sunblocks — these are mineral-based and reflect UV rays off the skin

Both types have a sun protection factor (SPF). This is a number that shows how effective the sunscreen is at protecting you from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays (2 different types of UV radiation produced by the sun) — and for how long. It typically ranges from 6 to 50+.

The higher the SPF number, the higher the level of protection.

To get enough protection you need to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside, then again every 2 hours. You should also reapply it after swimming or sweating.

A wide range of sunscreens are available to suit different lifestyles, age groups, skin types and skin colours, so it’s important to find the best option for you.

CeraVe Hydrating Sunscreen Body Lotion

Sunscreen for sensitive skin

If you have sensitive or allergy-prone skin, it may be better for you to choose a physical sunscreen (or sunblock). This is because the ingredients in chemical sunscreens can cause irritation.

Sunblock contains the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which sit on the skin’s surface instead of being absorbed into the skin. This makes sunblock less likely to cause irritation or an allergic reaction.

You may want to look for the words ‘sensitive skin’ on the label of your sunblock.

The Skin Cancer Foundation includes the following sunscreens on its list of products for sensitive skin:

  • EVER DAYLIGHT Radiance Tinted Moisturiser (for the face)
    This can be used daily as it’s mineral-based and less likely to irritate your skin. It has an SPF of 32 and is available in 6 different shades of skin colour.

  • CeraVe Hydrating Sunscreen Body Lotion (for the body)
    This was specifically created for sensitive skin and has an SPF of 50. It’s mineral-based, fragrance-free and less likely to clog your pores.

Some antidepressants, contraceptive pills, antibiotics and diuretics
(water pills) can make your skin even more sensitive to sunlight and, therefore, more likely to burn in the sun.

If you’re taking any medication, ask a doctor if this is a potential side effect.

CeraVe AM Facial Moisturising Lotion with Sunscreen

Sunscreen for acne-prone skin

If you have acne or are prone to spots, it may help to choose a mineral-based sunblock that is oil-free, sits on your skin and doesn’t clog your pores (non-comedogenic).

This will help minimise the risk of a particular sunscreen making your acne worse or triggering an outbreak.

Good options include:

Some medications that are used to treat acne can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so check with a doctor before choosing your sunscreen.

Woman with darker skin in the sun on a beach (Credit nappy)

Sunscreen for darker skin

If you have a darker skin tone, you have more of the pigment melanin in your skin. Melanin absorbs the sun’s UV rays to give you some natural protection.

But you can still catch the sun and burn, so it's important to wear sunscreen when you’re outdoors.

If you're worried about the white marks sunblocks can leave on your skin, you can try a tinted chemical-based sunscreen. These offer good protection throughout the day without leaving a white film on your skin.

Good options for darker skin include:

Sunscreen for fair skin

If you’re pale-skinned, have red hair or your skin burns very easily, you should take extra care to protect yourself from the sun.

Pale skin has low levels of melanin, which means that it has less natural protection from the sun than dark skin.

Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher when you’re outside a lot, and wear clothing that helps cover your skin from the sun.

Good options for fair skin include:

Woman floating in the sea on sunny day

Waterproof sunscreens

If you’re going to the beach, planning a day of water sports or getting in and out of a swimming pool, it’s important to wear a sunscreen that protects you from the sun while in water.

But no sunscreen is waterproof — it can only be water-resistant. This means it offers some protection for up to 40 minutes of being in water.

You can also get sunscreens that are very water-resistant — these can protect your skin for up to 80 minutes of being in water.

Most people remove up to 85% of the sunscreen they’ve put on when drying themselves off with a towel, so don't forget to reapply.

Good water resistant options include:

Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport sunscreen

Sunscreen for kids

Babies younger than 6 months old shouldn’t be exposed to the sun — their skin is highly sensitive at this age.

Instead of using sunscreen, try to keep them covered with clothing (loose clothing if it’s hot and humid) and make sure they wear sunglasses and sun hats.

You can start applying sunscreen to babies once they reach 6 months, but they should still wear a sun hat and cover up their skin.

It’s best to use a sunscreen that's specifically designed for children, water-resistant, broad-spectrum and has an SPF of 30 or higher. Make sure you reapply it every 2 hours while they’re outside.

Mineral-based sunscreens or formulas developed for toddlers and children may be best, as they're often less likely to irritate their skin.

It can be hard to keep young ones still for long enough to apply sunscreen, so a spray or stick may work best. Try:

Young baby girl sitting on a sandy beach wearing swimming costume (Credit Ashley K Little)

Will my sunscreen expire?

Sunscreen expires after 3 years, so it’s best to stop any sunscreen after this time — even if it doesn't have an expiry date on it.

Other ways to protect yourself from the sun

Sunscreen alone won’t protect you from the sun, that's why it's worth spending as much time in the shade as possible when you’re outside.

You should also wear:

  • lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that covers your skin but still allows it to breathe — cotton works well
  • a hat — to protect the top of your head, the back of your neck and your ears from the sun. A wide-brimmed hat is best
  • sunglasses that protect your eyes from the sun — these should block out UVA and UVB rays, so always check before you buy. If you can, choose wrap-around sunglasses as these fit more closely and offer even better protection against the sun’s rays

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