New research sheds light on what’s best for the well-being of your skin—and the planet.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Sunscreen has a bad rap. It’s inelegant and chalky. It causes breakouts and flares up fiery allergic rashes. It’s killing our coral reefs. And the list goes on. The latest FDA studies only drive the narrative: In findings published earlier this year, six common chemical sunscreen ingredients— avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate—were found to have been absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream after a single application, raising questions of safety, especially for children and pregnant women. “The rapid absorption of these chemicals has inspired the FDA to request follow-up testing for further study,” says New York dermatologist Macrene Alexiades, an associate clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “Importantly, FDA did not request additional testing for the two physical (aka mineral) sunscreens, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are considered safe.” 

We know what you’re thinking. But this isn’t an excuse to forgo sun protection altogether, even if you’re working from home or indoors most of the time. That is, if you’re a sensible person and have an active interest in avoiding skin cancer (by far the most common cancer; more than 100,000 cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, will be diagnosed in 2020, according to the American Cancer Society). And, perhaps even more urgently for some, want to ward off the myriad signs of skin ageing—lines and wrinkles, spots, enlarged pores, sagging, uneven texture. If so, consider this an opportune time to Marie Kondo your sunscreen supply.

“I’ve always favoured mineral sunscreens,” says New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler, who points to a host of compelling reasons: longer-lasting, broad-spectrum protection; immediate effectiveness (as opposed to chemicals, which take a half hour to kick in); as well as sensitive skin and coral reef safety. (Hawaii is the first state to regulate sunscreen use, banning oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are believed to contribute to coral bleaching, as of 2021.) “But I’ll still use chemicals and minerals for daily protection, just not in the water,” she adds.

Where mineral sunblocks often disappoint is for people with darker skin. “Most of them don’t like the grey hue that is cast over their skin when they wear many of them,” says Rosemarie Ingleton, a New York dermatologist. “There are a few brands that have figured out how to produce micronised minerals that are absorbed well. I personally use NeoStrata Matrix Support SPF 30 (a chemical sunscreen). And when I’m seriously out in the sun, I switch to EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46, which has zinc oxide but doesn’t leave a mask.”

Some skincare brands are also savvy to our evolving needs. Shiseido’s Global Suncare The Perfect Protector SPF 50+/ PA ++++, for instance, employs technologies that strengthen the sun protection veil over the skin upon contact with perspiration and heat from your body. With the help of a subtle tint, mineral blocks StriVectin Full Screen SPF 30 100% Mineral Vanishing Tint and ést.lab SunShield SPF 50 disappear once applied on the face. Anessa’s sweat- and water-resistant Essence UV Sunscreen Mild Milk SPF 35/PA+++ is not only suitable for sensitive skin, but also formulated to be reef-safe.

Healthy options aplenty, it takes strategy and dedication to avoid sun damage. “I layer everything—multiple sunblocks, a baseball hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved rash guard—and I even bring an extra rash guard to change into when I get out of the water,” says the fair-haired Wechsler, who is 50 and has experienced pigmentation issues such as melasma. She admits that this level of UV protection can feel excessive for most people: “I’ve been accused of not looking cute at the beach, but I don’t care.” And if you too want your skin to look younger than your years, you won’t either.