Everything You Need to Know about Sunscreen (and the Best Drugstore Sunscreens to Buy)

2 years ago

Summer is almost here, which means that it's time to think about sunscreen. It's also Skin Cancer Awareness Month, so this is the perfect time to talk about protecting your skin. Each year, new evidence comes out helping consumers choose the best protection for their skin, and frankly, all this information is a bit confusing to juggle when looking at those bottles in the drugstore. To make it simple, I've broken down what you need to look for in a sunscreen, as well as how popular sunscreens match up against the guidelines. (Hint: that sunscreen you've been using for years could contain dangerous chemicals or be flammable!)


Image: Ralph Daily via Flickr

So open up a memo on your iPhone and get ready to take some notes. There is a lot of ground to cover, and you'll want to have this information with you the next time you go to the store.


Image: USAG-Humphreys via Flickr

The goal of sunscreen is to stop harmful rays from reaching and damaging your skin. There are a few things the FDA recommends you look for in your sunscreen.

  • Look for a sunscreen labeled "broad spectrum." This means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. According to Skincancer.org, "Ultraviolet A (UVA) is the longer wave UV ray that causes lasting skin damage, skin aging, and can cause skin cancer. Ultraviolet B (UVB) is the shorter wave UV ray that causes sunburns, skin damage, and can cause skin cancer."
  • Look for a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 but no more than 50.
  • Buy a sunscreen labeled as "water resistant." Water resistant sunscreens are listed as protective for either 40 minutes or 80 minutes.
  • Anything you put on your skin also enters your body; therefore, be aware that there are chemicals you want to avoid. Environmental Working Group, says to avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. This is easier said than done. 56% of sunscreens on the market contain oxybenzone. The American Academy of Dermatology deems oxybenzone safe, and the FDA approved the use of this chemical in 1978. Make your own decision based on how you feel about these ingredients.

Image: Melissa Ford

  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you're heading outdoors. It takes 15 minutes to really sink into the skin.
  • Reapply at least every two hours.
  • Apply your sunscreen generously. People don't use nearly enough sunscreen. According to WebMD, "Most adults need a full ounce of sunscreen to fully cover all exposed areas of skin. An ounce is the amount in a shot glass or enough to fully cover the palm of your cupped hand." The problem with not using enough is that you also aren't getting the full SPF protection.
  • When you buy a new bottle of sunscreen, write the year on the front of the bottle with a Sharpie. That way, if you open multiple bottles and have any sunscreen left at the end of the summer, you'll know how old the sunscreen is the next year. According to the Mayo Clinic, sunscreen lasts for up to three years. Toss if the sunscreen doesn't look quite right coming out of the bottle (it may have separated) or if it smells off.

Technically, if your baby is over 6 months of age, you don't need to buy two different sunscreens for your family. Adults can use a "kid" sunscreen, though you'll want to avoid using an adult sunscreen on a child under 6 months.

Coppertone Kids Tear Free Lotion has everything you're looking for in a sunscreen: 50 SPF protection, water resistant for 80 minutes, and most importantly, no oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. It has a light smell and is non-greasy, sinking into the skin quickly.


Spray sunscreens are a lifesaver for parents trying to apply sunscreen to wiggling toddlers, but they don't offer the same protection as rub-in sunscreens UNLESS you also rub the sunscreen into the skin after spraying. Beyond that, spray sunscreens are flammable, and they contain chemicals that you don't want to inhale—and it's a semi-impossible task not to inhale when you're spraying it into the air. I know they're convenient, but sprays have too many drawbacks to receive my stamp of approval.

Still, if you must use a spray-on sunscreen, Coppertone Continuous Spray for Kids is decent. It provides 50 SPF protection and is water-resistant for 80 minutes. Unlike Coppertone's similar "kid" Tear Free Lotion, the spray version contains both oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. Also note that the spray version is not labeled "tear free."


When I think sunscreen, I think of that coconut smell. Many people opt for fragrance-free lotions, but if you're looking for that island-y scent, Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Lotion delivers. Despite one of the longest ingredients lists on any bottle of sunscreen, it doesn't contain oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. Hawaiian Tropic for the win!

Their SPF 30 sunscreen is water resistant for 80 minutes.


No one wants to feel sunscreen on her skin all day. Look for a lotion that sinks in quickly, leaving protection without a greasy film. Neutrogena has a whole line called Ultra Sheer Dry Touch. Though it contains oxybenzone, Dry Touch does everything you want it to do: protect at 30 SPF and provide water resistance for 80 minutes.


Sun, wind, and sand can be harsh enough on sensitive skin, so if that's you, look for a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free sunscreen that won't cause breakouts or rashes. Coppertone Sensitive Skin to the rescue. It doesn't contain oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, it protects to 50 SPF, it provides broad spectrum protection, and it's water resistant for 80 minutes. This one definitely wins my seal of approval.


If you are prone to red eyes from applying sunscreen to your face (as I am), go for a separate facial sunscreen. A facial sunscreen usually provides "no tears" protection, and it won't sting the eyes. This sunscreen is great for wiggling kids. Coppertone Sensitive Skin also comes separately in a solution for the face, that also protects to 50 SPF, provides broad spectrum protection, and is water resistant for 80 minutes. And like the body version, it contains no oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. Another win!

Tell us which sunscreen you use and why you like it.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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