Navigating the Sunscreen Maze: A Comprehensive Guide and Personal Recommendations

Amélie-avatar Amélie
February 9th, 2024 15 min

Sunscreen is a big topic and I would lie if I said I didn’t shy away from it multiple times. Why? Because I run this business with the core values extremely close to my heart and the truth is… when it comes to sunscreen, some of my values can not, at this time, be upheld.

Clean beauty is ever-evolving and still emerging. Let take some of the suspense out…I haven’t yet found a clean sunscreen that ticks all of my boxes: easy to apply, not too oily, right consistency, protects from the sun and… works well under makeup. Until now, using “natural” or cleaner options has gotten me sunburned more than I care to admit. Manoeuvring this fact, with my values, feels like walking on eggshells, and publishing it out for the world to read is intimidating.

In the Cocoon (my treatment room), I handle the topic of sunscreen with my clients with kindness and inclusivity. Because as a skin professional, I can’t tell you to use a cleaner alternative if it doesn’t work. If the rest of your routine is clean, then honestly, use sunscreen that fits your lifestyle, budget, and ease of use. Give the industry a few more years to develop an efficient clean sunscreen.

Now that this has been said, I will not leave you hanging for some useful information. If you’ve ever met me in person or watched my IG stories (and if you don’t, you really should because that’s where all the fun is at), you know that being concise is not where I shine, but an in-depth explanation; however, now we’re talking. So, go get yourself a drink, find a comfy spot and just let me walk you through the big world of sunscreen… in an as easy way to understand way as I can.

To write this blog post, I asked my audience what they wanted to know about this topic. I kept the most asked questions, so here we go- one question per paragraph but a whole lot of information.

Table of contents

What is the purpose of Sunscreen?

The purpose of sunscreen is to protect the skin and thus you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. These rays cause skin damage and premature ageing, increase the risk of skin cancer and can cause sunburn. Sunscreen acts as a shield by reflecting the UV rays away from the skin, or kind of like a sandbag during a flood, effectively absorbing the UV rays and turning them into heat through a chemical reaction blocking these UV rays from penetrating deep in the skin and causing (too much) damage.

How does it work (Heat and physical vs Chemical sunscreen)

Sunscreen works by forming a protective barrier on the skin that absorbs, scatters, or reflects the sun’s UV rays before they can reach and damage the deeper layers of your skin. There are two primary types of sunscreen: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, contain active mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These ingredients work by sitting on top of the skin and deflecting and scattering the UV rays. Physical sunscreens are usually thicker and may leave a white cast on the skin. It is good to note that a physical sunscreen only reflects about 5% of the UV rays and the rest is absorbed and turned into heat, just like a chemical sunscreen does.

Chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds that absorb UV radiation and transform it into a small amount of heat. These sunscreens are usually lighter and easier to apply without leaving a residue.

The truth is that most sunscreens combine both physical and chemical actions.

It’s crucial to apply sunscreen about 20 minutes before sun exposure. Although we now know that sunscreen starts to be effective right away, it’s always good to give your body heat time to do its job and absorb/melt the product into the skin to provide effective protection.

Applying sunscreen before you hop in the car is a good rule of thumb. If you have kids, it will be much easier on yourself to apply sunscreen to one kid at a time with them running around your garage or driveway instead of the parking lot at the beach.

I also want to reiterate that anything that states on the packaging that it’s “chemical-free” is just using this as a marketing ploy. Everything, absolutely everything, is a chemical. Chemical sunscreens have recently gotten a bad reputation because of their name, as well as some active ingredients that have turned out to be problematic. However, the legislation has changed, and a lot of “chemical sunscreens” are now absolutely safe to use. Just know that if a package states chemical-free, it’s greenwashing. Air and water are chemicals too. Put it back on the shelf and move on to a brand that uses ethical marketing.

What’s SPF? - Which SPF protection is better?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It measures the sunscreen’s ability to protect your skin from UVB rays, the kind of radiation that causes sunburn, damages skin, and can contribute to skin cancer.

This is actually based on your skin’s burn time. People believe a higher SPF protects you more, but this is not true.

SPF 15, for example, blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 98%.

No sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays. The actual level of protection you get also depends on factors like how you apply and reapply sunscreen, your skin type, and how long you spend in the sun.

What a higher SPF provides you with is time.

I was taught in school that to determine at which frequency you need to reapply sunscreen, you multiply your Fitzpatrick number by your SPF factor to determine how many minutes you’re protected for.

The Fitzpatrick number, also known as the Fitzpatrick skin type, is a classification system for skin colour. It was developed by dermatologist Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1975 and is used to determine how different skin types respond to ultraviolet (UV) light. The system classifies skin types from I (lightest, burns easily, never tans) to VI (darkest, never burns, tans easily). It’s often used to assess the risk of sunburn and skin cancer and to guide treatment in dermatology.


SPF Fitzpatrick No. Calculation Length of time before reapplying
SPF 50 Fitzpatrick I 1 x 50 50 minutes
SPF 15 Fitzpatrick III 3 x 15 45 minutes
SPF 30 Fitzpatrick II 2 x 30 60 minutes
SPF 50 Fitzpatrick IV 6 x 50 300 minutes = 5 hours

And so forth…

This is just one of many approaches on this. It is also highly unrealistic to think anyone would be disciplined enough to reapply sunscreen every hour. I sure don’t yet, I should. Two-hourly is a much more realistic approach, even if you have darker skin, because the risk of hyperpigmentation is higher for people with darker skin, whereas the risk of sunburn is higher for people with lighter skin.

As a skin therapist, I always recommend the highest SPF you can find, unless you will be photographed. Then, go for a lower SPF and wear a hat instead, if you can, as SPF tends to have a bit of a flashback.

What happens when you get sunburned?

When you get sunburned, it means your skin has been damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. It’s a clear sign that the DNA in your skin cells has been damaged. This damage is caused by an inflammatory response in your skin triggered by direct DNA damage. When your skin is exposed to UV radiation, the DNA in your skin cells can become damaged, leading to redness, pain, swelling, and peeling, which are characteristic of sunburn.

The sunburn is actually your body’s inflammatory response to this direct DNA damage. The blood vessels in your skin dilate, causing the redness and heat you feel. Your immune system also sends white blood cells to the areas of damage, which can increase redness and cause your skin to feel warm or hot. The pain you feel from a sunburn is due to the damage to the nerve endings in your skin.

In the short term, sunburn can be painful and uncomfortable. But in the long term, repeated sunburns or chronic sun exposure can lead to premature ageing (also known as photoaging) and an increased risk for skin cancer, including melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Photoaging can manifest as wrinkles, dark spots, and a leathery skin texture.

It’s also important to note that not all sun damage leads to sunburn. Even a tan is a sign of sun damage and can have similar long-term effects. That’s why it’s so important to protect your skin from the sun by wearing sunscreen, seeking shade, and wearing protective clothing.

What does Broadspectrum mean?

UVA, UVB, and UVC are three types of ultraviolet radiation that is emitted by the sun.

UV light, in general, damages the cellular DNA and thus causes sunburn and sun damage.

UVA rays make up the majority of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. They have a long wavelength and can penetrate deep into the skin, leading to long-term skin damage like premature ageing (they destroy the skin’s elasticity), wrinkles, and skin cancer. UVA rays are present all year round and can penetrate through clouds and glass.

UVB rays have a short wavelength and are partially absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer, but the portion that does reach the surface can cause immediate damage like sunburns and skin reddening. These rays also contribute to skin cancer and are most intense during the peak summer months.

UVC rays are the most harmful type of UV radiation, but fortunately, they are almost completely absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere and don’t reach the surface. Thus, we don’t need to worry about UVC rays in the context of sunscreen and skin protection.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens are designed to protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. This is important because, as explained earlier, each type of ray can cause different types of damage to the skin. On the other hand, non-broad-spectrum sunscreens do not offer protection against both types of rays.

Will sunscreen prevent you from tanning?

Before I give you the answer to this question, I want to talk to you about tanning and about your skin.

This will be extremely simplified ok!?

Your skin tans to protect itself from the sun. Tanning is, in fact, sun damage made visible. This happens because a cell in our skin (the melanocyte) is responsible of producing pigments in our skin. Every skin colour has the same number of melanocytes. What changes between somebody like me, who’s so pale I blind people at the beach (love my skin though), and humans with beautiful, deep, ebony skin is the size of the melanocyte and how high it goes into the skin. People with deeper skin will have bigger melanocytes that can take on more UV rays.

The cell that produces pigment (the melanocyte) has little arms that stretch in-between the other main cells of the skin: the keratinocytes, like an octopus, have tentacules, or kind of like roads in a city to connect buildings together.

When the sun hits the melanocytes, it triggers a pigment production process (melanogenesis), that pigment is called melanin. I am going to use the example of an online order, bear with me.

Let’s say you order a beautiful decor object online called Melanin. When your order goes through, a process is launched (here called melanogenesis) and your melanin will get packed and shipped. During the shipping process, the melanin parcel will travel into the little tentacles of the pigment cell (the melanocyte) to reach your apartment building in the main skin cell, the keratinocyte. For safety reasons, there’s a gate (the skin cell membrane). The security guard decides who or what gets to come in and who doesn’t. When it all goes well, your melanin can get through, it reaches your apartment, you have space for the melanin and your apartment, although now a bit more cluttered (aged) gets to look how you want it to, in this case: tanned.

Sometimes, the guy at the gate is drunk and tells all the delivery people yes, send all the melanin this way!!! The apartment building gets flooded with melanin and cannot cope with it; it’s saturated, and there’s no more room for extra melanin, and that is when hyperpigmentation happens. Eventually, there is melanin everywhere, the building is full, and the delivery people have no choice but to move on to the next-door building, the road extends to the next apartment building (skin cell) which causes the hyperpigmentation to spread. One of the hardest things to do as a skin therapist is to figure out why the security guard is drunk, a.k .a. why your skin cell membrane isn’t doing its job.

That is the pigmentation in a very simplified way. Going back to tanning and SPF, sunscreen can help prevent tanning to some extent, as it is designed to block or absorb the sun’s UV rays that cause tanning. However, no sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays. So, even when using sunscreen, some tanning may still occur, particularly if you spend a lot of time in the sun. It’s important to remember that tanning is a sign of skin damage. With sunscreen, you will likely tan a bit slower and hopefully not as deeply. When the tan fades, the sun damage is still there… so if you like to be tanned, maybe have a look at spray tanning or fake tan? I haven’t tried any since early 2000s as I have learned to embrace my pale-ness but should I ever come across a clean option, I’ll come back and edit this article.

What’s the difference between face sunscreen and body sunscreen?

The primary difference between face sunscreen and body sunscreen lies in their formulation. Face sunscreen is designed specifically for the delicate skin on the face, such as the skin around the mouth and the eyes. It often contains ingredients that cater to specific facial skin issues, such as acne, rosacea, or dry skin, and typically has a lighter texture that won’t clog pores or cause breakouts. Some face sunscreens may also have added skincare benefits, like antioxidants or anti-ageing ingredients. Usually, the face sunscreen works better under makeup.

On the other hand, body sunscreen is mostly designed for general use and often has a thicker texture. It might contain ingredients that could be too harsh or too heavy for the face (blocking pores and causing comedones). So, while it’s generally okay to use face sunscreen on the body, it’s usually not recommended to use body sunscreen on the face. I recommend using face sunscreen on your décolletage area and, should you be topless, your breasts as well because the skin in that area is delicate. You should also extend all your skincare to at least the décolletage area and the back of neck (you’ll thank me when you’re in your sixties.

Although the pH of the skin on your face and your body is slightly different, the pH of sunscreen does not typically vary between the face and the body. The ideal pH for any skincare product, including sunscreen, should be close to the skin’s natural pH, which is approximately 5.5. This applies to both face and body products to maintain the skin’s protective barrier, also known as the hydrolipidic film, optimal health.

Will sunscreen make you look lighter or white?

Chemical Sunscreen itself does not make your skin look lighter or whiter. However, some physical sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide need not to be rubbed in to do their job properly. In this case, you have to look kind of like you have a “face mask on”, so yes, you will look very white, as the product itself is usually white.

Sunscreen is another area in the skincare and beauty industry lacking inclusivity. Most sunscreen products are white, thus being more noticeable on darker skin tones, and although many brands now formulate their sunscreens to be “invisible” or “sheer”, once rubbed in, medium to dark skin tones can look a bit grey with sunscreen on rather than white, but it’s still not ideal.

When do you need to use sunscreen? - Do you need to reapply?

Every day. I can not emphasize this enough but absolutely every single day…. Unless you live in Norway, where it’s nighttime 24/7 during the winter month… but on average, it will still even out because Norway gets the midnight sun in summer. So… ALWAYS.

Why, you ask? Because as long as the sun is up, UV rays are present and will damage your skin. Even on cloudy days, the sun’s UV rays can still penetrate the clouds. It is even more important if you’re near reflective surfaces like water or snow or in high altitudes, which can intensify the sun’s rays. Finally, reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating. I know it’s tedious, but it’s the best habit you can have to help slow the ageing process down. If you want a more detailed and accurate explanation, scroll back up to the SPF paragraph.

If your desk at work is next to a window… you still need to wear SPF as UV rays can penetrate through glass.

Will sunscreen cause acne, breakouts, pimples, and comedones?

Sunscreen can cause acne, breakouts, pimples, or comedones if it is not suited to your skin type or is not properly removed at the end of the day. Some sunscreens may contain comedogenic (pore-clogging) ingredients, which can lead to acne. However, many sunscreens are formulated to be non-comedogenic, meaning they should not clog pores. If you have acne-prone skin, look for non-comedogenic, oil-free sunscreens, and always double-cleanse your skin thoroughly at the end of the day to remove any sunscreen residue.

This is where double-cleansing really saves the day. I promise!

Some ingredients in sunscreens that are known to cause comedones or breakouts include:

  • Isopropyl Palmitate

  • Butyl Stearate

  • Isopropyl Myristate

  • Myristyl Myristate

  • Isostearyl Isostearate

  • Cocoa Butter

  • Acetylated Lanolin

  • D & C Red Pigments

  • Octyl Stearate

  • Octyl Palmitate

  • Ethylhexyl Palmitate

It's important to note that not everyone's skin will react the same way to these ingredients. What may cause breakouts in one person may not affect another person's skin. It is always best to patch-test a new sunscreen before full application. I will share my top sunscreen picks at the end of this article.

Will Sunscreen block vitamin D?

Sunscreen can potentially reduce the body’s production of vitamin D, as it blocks the UVB rays that are necessary for the body to produce vitamin D. However, most people do not apply enough sunscreen to block all UVB rays, and even with sunscreen, some UV light still gets through, as no sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays, which can provide sufficient vitamin D production. Furthermore, vitamin D can also be obtained through diet and supplements. Therefore, using sunscreen should not be a reason to risk skin damage from UV rays.

Which ingredients are the most common in Sunscreen?

The most common ingredients in sunscreens can be divided into physical (mineral) and chemical.

Physical sunscreen ingredients include Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide. They work by sitting on the skin’s surface and partially reflecting and scattering the UV rays away from the skin. These are generally considered safe and are less likely to cause skin irritation, making them a good choice for sensitive skin. However, they leave a white cast on the skin, especially on darker skin tones, have a thicker consistency and thus can be harder to spread on the body (especially if you’re hairy.)

Chemical sunscreen ingredients include Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate and Octinoxate. These ingredients work by absorbing the UV rays and then releasing them from the skin as heat. Some chemical sunscreens have been linked to skin irritation and allergies. Oxybenzone, in particular, has raised concerns due to its potential hormonal disruption effects, and Octinoxate has been linked to coral reef damage.

Another common ingredient is Ensulizole, a chemical UVB absorber that is less likely to cause skin irritation than other chemical sunscreens, but it only protects against UVB rays, not UVA rays.

It’s important to remember that the sensitivity to these ingredients can vary from person to person. Always perform a patch test when trying a new sunscreen to ensure it doesn’t cause irritation.

Are there ingredients I should avoid in Sunscreen?

Due to potential health concerns, some key ingredients to avoid in sunscreen include oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene. These chemicals have been linked to endocrine disruption, impacting hormonal balance in the body. Another problematic ingredient is homosalate, which can accumulate in the body and may disrupt hormone function. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, has been associated with an increased risk of skin cancer when exposed to sunlight. Additionally, fragrance or parfum in sunscreens may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions and endocrine disruptions.

How to apply sunscreen on kids?

Honestly, my best tip is to use a foundation brush and make fart noises, or engine sounds as you apply it… depending on the age of your child. The brush makes it much easier to spread evenly and reach all the “nooks and crannies” of a child’s face. This works for babies too.

My best friend cleaned out some empty roll-on deodorant bottles, filled them up with sunscreen and use them. The kids enjoy it a lot more and it’s easier for them and they are small enough to have one in your handbag. I haven’t yet tried this, but I absolutely will!

Spray, liquid, cream, stick, … which one to choose?

You have to choose the one that is the easiest to use for you, the one that fits into your life. Because if you add friction to the process, which, let’s face it, you know you should do but don’t want to, you just won’t do it.

If you wear makeup, find an aerosol small sunscreen to have in your handbag and spread over your face before you go out for lunch and press it in … do that about 3 times to make sure you have the coverage and amount you need and still wear a hat as no aerosol sunscreen will ever give you the same as one you rub in. But over makeup, it’s still better than nothing.

But, as an FYI aerosol bottles are a nightmare when it comes to rubbish management. Spray bottles do not give the same effect. Next time I have an empty makeup setting spray, I’ll see if sunscreen can be thin enough to work in those but I doubt it.

What to consider when choosing a sunscreen?

  • SPF Level: What level of sun protection factor (SPF) do you need based on your skin type and sun exposure? SPF 30 is generally the minimum that is recommended but unless you’re being photographed, I will ALWAYS tell you to go SPF 50, if you can.
  • Broad Spectrum: Does the sunscreen offer broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays? If it doesn’t, pick a different one.
  • Your life style: Do you spend most of your time outside, which country do you live in, do you need a city sunscreen or a "sports" sunscreen, how much do you sweat, do you wear makeup ... all of these will impact the type of product you will need, the texture, the way it absorbs into the skin,...
  • Water Resistance: Is the sunscreen water-resistant if you plan on swimming or engaging in water activities? Remember that even if it says it’s water-resistant, you will need to reapply after being in the water or being sweaty.
  • Skin Sensitivity: Do you have sensitive skin? Opt for a sunscreen labelled as hypoallergenic and free from common irritants such as perfumes or fragrances. (Avoid them even if you don't have sensitive skin because perfume and fragrances are hormonal disruptors.)
  • Ingredients: Are you sensitive or allergic to certain sunscreen ingredients? Always check the ingredient list for any you might be allergic to and patch test products if you have sensitive/reactive skin.
  • Fragrance-Free: Sunscreen should be fragrance-free.
  • Application Type: Do you prefer lotions, sprays, or sticks? Consider your convenience and personal preference. If you can, also take the planet into consideration and the life span of the packaging once your bottle is empty.
  • Expiration Date: Check the expiration date to ensure the sunscreen is still effective if it doesn’t have an expiration date, replace it every 12 months.
  • Ease of Application: Is the sunscreen easy to apply and does it blend well with your skin tone? Does it work with the amount of body hair you have?
  • Brand Reputation: Have you researched the brand's reputation for product quality and safety, is the brand know to meet their SPF claims?

My top picks

Let me preface this by saying that some of my top picks are not clean but they are efficient. As I write this (January 2024), I am aware some of these brands have controversial stances in modern conflicts; my responsibility, in this instance, has to go towards my client’s skin.

You also know that I normally work with New Zealand or Australian-made products, and I just can’t for sunscreen for the face, as of yet, but there are new kids on the block that I will be trialling this year, and I am here for it.

So, for the time being, here are my recommendations that will work for your skin but not your values, they are not clean nor locally made, if like me, you live in New Zealand.

For your face:

La Roche Posay: Anthelios Invisible Fluid SPF 50

You can’t really get a better option for under makeup, there is a non-comedogenic option as well as a tinted option. I have never tried the tinted version but the other two are fabulous. It is broad-spectrum and fragrance-free.


Works really well under makeup, broad spectrum but it contains phenoxyethanol and is “only” SPF 40.

For your body:

Sol Natural sunscreen SPF 40.

Clean, zero-waste packaging and made in Aotearoa, New Zealand, I love it on the body. I have never burned with it, but it does not work well for individuals with a lot of body hair. I do not like it on my face as sand sticks to my face… But the product is great! (I do not have a discount code team, sorry) and you can absolutely not wear it under makeup. Everything will just slide off if you try to apply makeup on top of it

Now, ultimately, when. it comes to sunscreen, I use what I have on hand, without being too picky. Because I’d rather have some chemical rather than be sunburned.

New on the block that I want to try:

  • Orchard and Ocean: a New Zealand made sunscreen that passed my first impression but now I need to try it more before having a definite opinion on.
  • Rawkanvas came out with a sunscreen just before the summer! I haven’t tried it yet, but I love the brand so I am excited. I just have to not have too many sunscreens on the go at once and prioritise the funds to purchase the two so I can do a side-by-side comparison.


"Skinside Out" by Robin McAlpine
"Skincare: Skincare The New Edit: The award-winning, no-nonsense guide with all new industry updates and recommendations for your skin" by Caroline Hirons
Chloasma--the mask of pregnancy - Ivan Bolanca 1, Zeljana Bolanca, Krunoslav Kuna, Ante Vuković, Neven Tuckar, Radoslav Herman, Goran Grubisić
The Effect of Sunscreens on the Skin Barrier Alicia Gonzalez-Bravo, Data curation,1 Trinidad Montero-Vilchez, Conceptualization,2,3,* Salvador Arias-Santiago, Investigation,1,2,3 and Agustin Buendia-Eisman, Conceptualization1,3
Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid by Amy Myers, MD
"Adverse Reactions to Sunscreen Agents: Epidemiology, Responsible Irritants and Allergens, Clinical Characteristics, and Management" by Ashley R. Heurung, Srihari I. Raju, and Erin M. Warshaw
"Analysis of the Active Ingredients in Sunscreen: A Multiweek Experiment for the Analytical Chemistry Laboratory" by Kelly Ambruso, Hee-Yon Park, and Kathryn R. Riley
"Unplanned absorption of sunscreen ingredients: Impact of formulation and evaluation methods" by Rodrigo Collina Romanhole a 1, Ana Laura Masquetti Fava a 1, Louise Lacalendola Tundisi b, Lucas Malvezzi de Macedo a, Érica Mendes dos Santos b, Janaína Artem Ataide b, Priscila Gava Mazzola b

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