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A complete guide to buying sunscreen: Never be confused in a sunscreen aisle again

Buying sunscreen can be an overwhelming experience to say the least. Cream or spray? Mineral or chemical? SPF 15 or SPF 50? Tinted or untinted?

With such a vast variety of options, how do you know what to choose?

The sunscreen industry is massive and the options can seem endless — but not all brands are created equal. These days, finding the right sunscreen can feel more complicated than navigating the dating pool. Is it too much to ask for a sunscreen that is high quality, trustworthy, and effective?!

We have the answers for you. Our goal is to ensure you’re using a trustworthy sunscreen product, without feeling like you’re back in science class. Let’s begin!

P.S. If you'd like to take a quiz to help choose the right sunscreen, we've made one just for you: Take the quiz!

What does Broad Spectrum mean?

Broad spectrum means that you are protected against both UVA and UVB rays. The sun gives off UVA and UVB radiation, each affecting the skin differently.

  • UVA = aging. These rays penetrate deeper into the skin, and are responsible for visible signs of aging and tanning.
  • UVB = burning. These rays damage outer skin cell layers, causing sunburn.

95% of solar radiation that reaches us is UVA, and the rest is largely UVB. UVC (ultraviolet C) is the most damaging type of UV radiation. That said, it’s completely filtered out by the atmosphere and doesn’t reach the earth's surface.

Mineral or chemical?

Curious to know the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens?

We’re going to break it down for you. Chemical sunscreens (as they are commonly called) use non-physical chemicals to filter out the sun's harmful UV rays, and mineral sunscreens use physical compounds to block ultraviolet radiation with ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Both are chemicals—everything around us is a chemical, to be precise—but the way the two types of sunscreens work is slightly different.

Some chemical sunscreen ingredients available in the U.S. may show up in the bloodstream. Used over an extended period of time and/or at higher concentrations, these sunscreens may act as endocrine disruptors.

Furthermore, some of these filters may be contact allergens for people with sensitive skin. That’s why at Clair Obscur we have a strong focus on mineral sunscreens. It’s important to us to have formulations that are safe for children, those with sensitive skin, and people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive.

It’s also important to note that mineral sunscreens are often coined as "inorganic.” That’s because they’re inorganic in the chemistry use of the term, meaning that they don’t contain carbon-to-carbon bonds. (It’s not related to our use of the term organic in the food context!). On the other hand, chemical sunscreens are labeled "organic," which can be confusing for a consumer.

Sun care ingredients to choose

Now that we’ve laid out the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreens, hopefully you have a good sense of which choice is right for you. We’re generally on the side of Team Mineral for ourselves and our kids, but there are also arguments for chemical sunscreens, and ultimately you should choose what feels right for you.

If you’re choosing a mineral formula (best for kids and those who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive), make sure it includes:

  • Zinc Oxide: The broadest spectrum range available without additional supporting filters, highly stable and non-comedogenic when formulated well, with larger-sized particles scattering more radiation and absorbing UVA better.
  • Titanium Dioxide: Stable when formulated well, safe (when applied to skin and not inhaled), and with minimal links to coral reef and other environmental damage.
  • Or a combination of both of the above ingredients!

If you’re choosing a chemical formula (not recommended for kids and those who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to conceive), look for the following ingredients:

  • Avobenzone: The main UVA I filter used in the US market today. It is an effective sunscreen for UVA rays, although it tends to degrade very quickly — hence you’ll want to reapply often!
  • Homosalate: Used to solubilize Avobenzone and other sunscreen filters, and effective in the UVB range.  Homosalate has been found to have estrogenic activity, although full effects have not been proven.
  • Octisalate: Usually used in combination with other sunscreen filters such as Avobenzone; it is also effective in the UVB range. This ingredient is a potential allergen for contact dermatitis (although so are many other sunscreen filters), and is not a strong filter on its own.

On the other hand, these are ingredients that we would put on the watchlist for various reasons:

  • Oxybenzone: This ingredient may behave like an endocrine disruptor, and it's banned in Hawaii. Most brands are now formulating without oxybenzone.
  • Octinoxate: A common sunscreen ingredient, it’s shown to be systematically absorbed into the body (although adverse health effects have not been proven).
  • Octocrylene: According to chemists, this ingredient makes your eyes water when the sunscreen migrates there (hence, we nicknamed it octoCRYlene). Studies have reported photo contact allergy to the ingredient, especially for adults with ketoprofen sensitivity and children with sensitive skin.

There are many other sunscreen filters available, both in the US and internationally, which we will cover in other posts!

Matching your skin type

Keeping your skin type in mind when choosing a sunscreen is important.

If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, you may be nervous to go out and try new sunscreens due to fear of having a bad reaction. We suggest looking for a sunscreen that is hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, and non-comedogenic — as tested by a third party lab. These factors can help minimize negative reactions due to irritating ingredients.

If you lean towards the “less is more” approach, we would suggest using a moisturizing tinted sunscreen. That way, you can get a little coverage with your sunscreen, combined into one product!

Matching your skin tone

We often prefer a tinted sunscreen as we believe that it makes it a lot easier to blend the sunscreen into the skin. Tinted sunscreen should not be like foundation (makeup); it should be lightly tinted to avoid a white cast as you blend it in. While most brands tout one single tint works for all skin colors, we've found from experience that it's generally not the case, and we need at least 2-3 tints for everyone to find one that works for their skin.

What about Blue Light (High Energy Visible/HEV Light)?

Wondering if blue light protection is hype or real? The short answer is that blue light is usually emitted at levels too low from our devices to really cause our skin any serious harm (although blue light glasses do help your eyes).

Iron oxides and pigmentary titanium dioxides are the two compounds that actually filter blue light.

Most skincare products that tout blue light protection (and don’t include iron oxides or pigmentary titanium dioxides) are referring to antioxidants in the product that fight the damage that blue light produces in the skin. Picking a tinted sunscreen with these ingredients is most likely to help you protect your skin from visible light.


Thankfully, these days most of us are keen on protecting Mother Earth — especially when it comes to the products we use on a daily basis. While many sunscreens claim to be “reef friendly,” that term isn’t regulated. It's key to look at the “active ingredients” label on the back of your sunscreen to ensure that these reef-harming chemicals aren’t included:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (Enzacamene)
  • PABA
  • Triclosan
  • Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads”

We also feel compelled to mention that the biggest threat to corals is not sunscreens, but climate change. So we need to do what we can to address the root causes of a warming earth.

Cream, milk, stick, spray — which format?

We strongly suggest that you opt for a cream sunscreen (especially for the face), as spray sunscreen may contain ingredients that are harmful when accidentally inhaled. Additionally, it’s difficult to achieve an even application using a spray, so you can’t be sure that the full surface of your skin is 100% protected.

Some studies show that you may need at least 250 seconds of spraying per limb to achieve the right sunscreen coverage, especially in windy conditions. That's a lot longer than we think we need!

Milk or lotion sunscreens are also good options that spread easily, and we favor these for applying across large areas of the body (or on kids!).

Stick sunscreens are also a good option, although they tend to drag on the skin, and it can be hard to tell when you're fully covered. Some of our friends have reported zebra stripes with stick sunscreens! That said, stick sunscreens are solid, and that makes them slightly less messy.

Overall, we suggest picking between cream, milk/lotion, and stick, depending on where and when you'll use it — and according to your preferences.

Water resistance

If you spend time getting wet and/or sweaty outdoors during daylight hours, you’ll want to seek out a water-resistant sunscreen.

You’ll likely see options for 40 minutes and 80 minutes of water resistance. This is largely a personal preference; we’d just caution you not to let these time indicators give a false sense of security: if you’re getting wet, try to reapply every 45 minutes regardless of what it says on the bottle.

Trusting product effectiveness

Oftentimes, sunscreens will claim to be SPF 30...but take a closer look at the ingredients and you’ll find that’s not always the case.

Researchers at Consumer Reports looked into the Sun Protection Factor value of 65 sunscreen products (including lotions, sprays and sticks), and found that 43% of them had less SPF than stated on the label. Yikes! So, how can you be sure a sunscreen that claims to be SPF 40 is actually delivering that level of protection?

While it’s difficult to know for certain if there’s adequate broad spectrum SPF 30+ protection, a general rule of thumb would be to look for a product containing at least 20% zinc oxide. Alternatively, you could seek out a product that contains 10-15% zinc oxide combined with 3-5% titanium dioxide. Remember, this is just a rule of thumb, and various formulation changes can increase or decrease the efficiency of your sunscreen.

Look for independent lab testing for each sunscreen, which some companies provide on their websites.

Pick up some sunscreen!

We hope this guide helps you feel a bit less frustrated and overwhelmed when it comes to understanding sunscreen.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes actually trying the sunscreen to know if it works for you. Our co-founder, Carylyne, has tested over 100+ mineral sunscreens so far, so she knows the pain of finding the right sunscreen — sometimes, you just have to set out to do the 2-year R&D to make your own!

We're creating sunscreen that’s good for our skin, health, and the environment. We’re happy to see that you’ve come to the right place (Clair Obscur checks off all of those boxes, and more!).

Please feel free to reach out to us anytime you have a question about how to pick a sunscreen — we're always elated to meet another sunscreen enthusiast!