Beauty

The Best Mineral Sunscreens for Every Skin Tone: The 2024 Guide

Written by: Jean Godfrey-June

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Updated on: May 10, 2024

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Photo courtesy of FORAH

Most of what we think of as the signs of aging are actually the signs of sun damage, so daily sunscreen is the most essential step in any skin routine—it’s truly the most powerful miracle cream there is, not to mention critical protection against skin cancer.

Sunscreen is worth choosing extremely carefully, as this year’s sunscreen report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) makes abundantly clear. Choosing mineral-only formulas (the active ingredient list should include only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or both) is the best way to protect yourself, as chemical sunscreen active ingredients have been shown to have potentially carcinogenic, hormone-disrupting, and higher-irritancy effects. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two active ingredients currently “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE) by the FDA, as reflected in a 2020 FDA-funded study to reevaluate the safety of chemical sunscreens.

The benefits of making mineral sunscreen a no-exceptions habit are clear, the EWG report says: In a 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Australians cut their melanoma risk in half by age 50 by applying SPF 15 sunscreen daily, wearing hats, and avoiding the sun in other ways. The American Cancer Society estimates that 100,640 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2024 and about 8,290 will die from it, as described in “Key Statistics for Melanoma Skin Cancer.”

WHAT ARE MINERAL SUNSCREENS?

Mineral, or physical, sunscreens provide protection by physically blocking and reflecting UVA and UVB rays, sitting on top of the skin like a shield (although some research shows that mineral sunscreens can also have the added benefit of absorbing UV rays). By contrast, chemical sunscreens provide protection by absorbing the UV rays. Both goop and EWG recommend using only physical sunscreens and avoiding chemical ones entirely. EWG points out that in 2019, the FDA proposed updates to sunscreen regulations and, in that proposal, found that only two ingredients—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—could be classified as safe and effective. “We’re seeing an increase in mineral formulations on the market overall,” says Emily Spilman, EWG’s healthy living science program manager. “Coupled with the fact that they’ve been determined to be safe and effective to use, mineral products are also undergoing innovations—in areas like touch and texture—and are more appealing to use.”

BEST SUNSCREENS FOR FACE

These editors’ favorites make daily sunscreen an easy habit to stick to.

  1. SILKY SPF 50

    Iris&Romeo
    Weekend Skin SPF 50 + Vitamin C + Glow
    goop, $50SHOP NOW
  2. ULTRAMOISTURIZiNG

    FORAH
    Everyday Mineral Face Sunscreen SPF 30
    goop, $47SHOP NOW
  3. SHEER AND HYDRATING (MD-APPROVED)

    Dr. Few Skincare
    Tinted Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30
    goop, $85SHOP NOW
  1. PRIMER AND SUNSCREEN IN ONE

    Saint Jane
    Luxury Sun Ritual Pore Smoothing SPF 30
    goop, $38SHOP NOW
  2. NOURISHING SEA SERUM

    MARA
    Algae + Zinc Sea Kale Sunscreen Serum
    goop, $52SHOP NOW
  3. ULTRASMOOTHING AND BRIGHTENING

    RMS Beauty
    SuperNatural Radiance Serum SPF 30
    goop, $48SHOP NOW

TINTED MOISTURIZERS WITH SPF

Smooth skin tone and blur imperfections while you protect and nourish skin.

  1. GLEAMY AND LIGHTWEIGHT

    Saie
    Sunvisor
    goop, $38SHOP NOW
  2. CREAMY SPF AND FOUNDATION

    Tower 28 Beauty
    SunnyDays SPF 30 Tinted Sunscreen Foundation
    goop, $32SHOP NOW
  3. LUMINIZING AND BLURRING

    Kosas
    BB Burst Tinted Moisturizer Gel Cream with Copper Peptides
    goop, $38SHOP NOW

BEST SUNSCREENS FOR BODY

Mineral sunscreen is extra important at the beach because of concerns around coral damage (for more on that issue, scroll down).

  1. DELICATE TEXTURE

    The Organic Pharmacy
    Cellular Protection Sun Cream SPF 30
    goop, $69SHOP NOW
  2. CUTEST TUBE (AMAZING FOR FACE, TOO)

    Grown Alchemist
    Natural Hydrating Sunscreen SPF 30
    goop, $42SHOP NOW

PEOPLE OF COLOR AND MINERAL SUNSCREEN

Distressingly, some proponents of chemical sunscreens have argued that they are a better choice for people of color because they’re easier to rub in. Katonya Breaux, who is Black, created Unsun, a mineral sunscreen company for all skin tones. Its sunscreen comes in two tints: “We tried the formulas on every skin tone there is,” says Breaux. “With two tints, the palest pale skin tone is covered, and so is the darkest dark.”

  1. BLENDS BEAUTIFULLY INTO ANY SKIN TONE

    Unsun
    Hydrating Full Coverage Body Lotion SPF 30
    goop, $32SHOP NOW

WHAT ABOUT POWDERS AND SPRAYS?

The allure is that they’re easy to apply (especially for people with wriggling children), but their risks may far outweigh the convenience. EWG has been recommending against them—even mineral sprays, especially the ones with micronized particles or nanoparticles—for the past 10 years because of the risk of inhalation. “Sprays cloud the air with tiny particles that may not be safe to breathe and could damage the lungs if inhaled,” says Spilman. “Certain aerosol sunscreens were found to be widely contaminated by chemical benzene.” Banned by the FDA in sunscreens because of its “unacceptable toxicity,” the carcinogen benzene was found in numerous sunscreens, particularly in sprays, but also in lotions and gels at lower concentrations. (The FDA does not require companies to test their products for benzene contamination, EWG reminds us.)

Beyond their potential to damage health, aerosols don’t offer good protection. “It’s difficult to apply a layer of sunscreen thick and uniform enough to ensure proper UV protection,” says Spilman. In fact, researchers from Australia’s Griffith University found that how thickly aerosol sunscreen was applied was reduced in the presence of even a light breeze (applying even an entire container may not provide sufficient protection in this scenario). “Instead of a spray,” says Spilman, “choose a sunscreen lotion or stick you can gently rub directly onto your skin.” EWG’s new search filters make it easier than ever to find options.

  1. LOTION FOR EVERY SKIN TYPE

    Supergoop
    PLAY 100% Mineral Lotion SPF 30 with Green Algae
    goop, $36SHOP NOW

ARE MICRONIZED MINERALS AND NANOMINERALS OKAY?

Experts agree more research is needed into micronized and nanomineral sunscreens. Manufacturers can grind zinc oxide and titanium dioxide into tiny micronized particles or nanoparticles to make the formulas easier to smooth on and provide transparency, but the small size of these particles could make it easier for them to penetrate skin. There are newer studies on the ecotoxicity of zinc oxide, especially as nanoparticles. At goop, we avoid the use of nanoparticles. “What research there is on micronized zinc oxide (in vitro, in vivo, ex vivo, and clinical studies) shows that very, very minute amounts, if any, reach the blood and urine,” says goop senior science editor Denise John. “Some studies report that micronized zinc oxide and zinc nanoparticles don’t reach the deep layers of the epidermis, and there’s research to support the theory that zinc oxide nanoparticles do not cause toxicity to the skin.” (The EWG report notes that studies sponsored by the FDA and the EU and Toxicological Sciences concluded that neither zinc oxide nor titanium dioxide nanoparticles penetrate the skin.)

THE RIGHT COVERAGE FOR YOUR BODY

Apply enough sunscreen: This means two milligrams of sunscreen for every square centimeter of skin (industry experts translate this recommendation to using a shot glass full of sunscreen for the entire body). And double down on hats and long sleeves. In a national CDC survey in Cancer Causes & Control, Stanford University dermatologists found evidence that people who relied solely on sunscreen for sun protection got more sunburns than people who used less sunscreen but wore hats and clothing as sun protection. Spilman notes it’s worth being keenly aware of the most intense hours of sunlight, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. “Something I do personally is check the UV index on the weather app,” she says. “It’s a good way to navigate avoiding the sun. It changes hour to hour and can vary by season.”

HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU APPLY?

Every two hours or so. This recommendation is most urgent for situations like a day on a sunny beach, but it applies across the board. And remember that every time you wash your hands, you wash off any sunscreen on them—and because the backs of our hands are one of the areas where sun damage really shows up later in life, we carry this brilliant tube of hand-specific sunscreen in our bag at all times and reapply whenever we wash our hands.

  1. Unsun
    Hand Cream SPF 15
    goop, $27SHOP NOW

WHAT DOES SPF VALUE ACTUALLY MEAN?

A 2021 study found that most sunscreens sold in the US provide less UVA protection than the SPF on the label suggests (UVA rays cause skin damage, wrinkles, and cancer). EWG says that on average, the UVA protection factor was only a quarter of the labeled SPF value. The extra protection offered by SPF 50 and above is, according to the FDA in the Federal Register, misleading. (The FDA proposed capping SPF claims at 60-plus in a 2021 report.) SPF factors in only how well a sunscreen protects the skin from UVB rays. But UVA rays aren’t accounted for in SPF ratings. Even the most-sensitive-to-sunburn skin can get adequate protection from SPFs of 30 to 50, and the difference between an SPF 50 and an SPF 100 is vanishingly small: The 50, properly applied, blocks 98 percent of UVB rays; SPF 100 blocks 99 percent.

CAN SUNSCREEN CAUSE BREAKOUTS OR IRRITATED SKIN?

Some chemical sunscreen ingredients can also be potent skin and eye irritants (octinoxate, homosalate, and octisalate, for instance; the EWG report—citing Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine—notes that oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions as well). Mineral sunscreen ingredients, on the other hand, can help soothe skin (zinc oxide is what most baby-bottom creams are made from).

“Mineral sunscreens are typically tolerated by all skin types—I recommend them to everyone, but especially my clients with sensitive skin, rosacea, eczema, or sun-induced rashes,” says New York dermatologist Elyse Love, MD. “Chemical sunscreens can be allergenic, whereas reactions to physical sunscreens are uncommon. Physical sunscreens also tend to be better at preventing sun-induced reactions.”

MAKE SUNSCREEN A HABIT

New clean mineral sunscreens are ever more silky, luxurious, and easy to apply, it turns out, so choosing in favor of your own health doesn’t have to involve compromises in experience or efficacy. “Historically, formulating elegant all-mineral-based broad-spectrum sunscreens SPF 30–plus that weren’t shiny, pasty, or sticky or didn’t leave a white cast was challenging,” says Akshay Talati, VP of product development at goop. “But challenges drive innovation—in transparency, texture, water resistance, improved efficacy, and cosmetic elegance.”

Everyday amounts of sun add up. “Most people understand that repeated sunburns increase the risk of skin cancer and skin aging, but daily sun exposure over many years also increases the risk of skin cancer and skin aging,” says Love, who notes that the lower eyelids, upper lip margin, and ears are common places for skin cancer because people often overlook those areas when they’re putting on sunscreen. Brilliantly, Supergoop makes an SPF 40 mineral sunscreen specifically for the eye area.

  1. Supergoop
    Bright-Eyed 100% Mineral Eye Cream SPF 40
    goop, $40SHOP NOW

ENDOCRINE DISRUPTION

Among the worst effects of some chemical sunscreen ingredients is their potential to disrupt our endocrine systems; what’s especially troubling with endocrine disruptors is that even tiny amounts can cause problems—in many cases, there’s no known safe dose. Oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, and octinoxate are four common sunscreen ingredients that EWG has flagged in particular in response to studies highlighting their ability to disrupt our hormone systems.

MORE ON EWG’S FINDINGS

  • In its 2021 sunscreen regulation proposal, the FDA identified the following chemical sunscreen ingredients as not GRASE due to insufficient data: avobenzone, cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate (or octyl methoxycinnamate), octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, padimate O, and sulisobenzone. Even though studies show that these ingredients can be absorbed through the skin and that some can disrupt hormones, they’re still in chemical sunscreens on the market and will remain so until the FDA finalizes its proposal.
  • The evidence against oxybenzone is ever more powerful: Studies show it acts as a hormone disruptor and a skin allergen and that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone measurements had lower testosterone levels. EWG is continuing to see a decrease in the use of oxybenzone in chemical sunscreens. “The market has reacted to data of it being a hormone disruptor,” says Spilman.
  • A 2017 systematic review of 23 studies found that there may be associations between oxybenzone exposure and adverse reproductive outcomes, including birth outcomes.
  • Four 2020 studies confirmed that oxybenzone may increase the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis. Other studies found that oxybenzone and other chemical sunscreen ingredients were detected in breast milk, urine, and blood plasma samples.
  • Oxybenzone may pose more of a risk to children than it does to adults, EWG noted, citing that “they are more susceptible to the effects of chemicals.”
  • EWG also cites a 2012 study in Environmental Science & Technology that linked an increased risk of endometriosis to exposures to oxybenzone and related chemicals.
  • And as to whether avoiding potentially toxic ingredients can make a difference in our bodies, EWG cites a University of California, Berkeley, study in Environmental Health Perspectives that showed a dramatic drop in teen girls’ oxybenzone exposure when they switched from their usual cosmetic products to ones without it.
  • A 2021 study found the carcinogen benzophenone was widespread in sunscreens containing octocrylene.
  • The European Commission proposed limiting the allowed concentrations of octocrylene and homosalate (both have been flagged as hormone disruptors) in sunscreens after it declared the two ingredients unsafe in the amounts at which they’re currently used. But here in the US, sunscreen manufacturers are still allowed to use homosalate and octocrylene at concentrations beyond the European limit; in fact, there are hundreds of sunscreens on the American market that contain the two chemicals.

THE EFFECT OF SUNSCREEN ON OCEANS AND CORAL

Oxybenzone is banned in Australia and Hawaii because it has been shown to contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs; octinoxate is also banned in Hawaii, as well as in Key West. (Reef bleaching can also be attributed to rising water temperatures due to climate change, but a study in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology showed oxybenzone can be fatal to baby coral and damaging to adult coral in high concentrations.)

INDUSTRY RESPONSE

The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), the conventional cosmetics trade association and lobbying group, has historically rejected the findings of EWG’s reports. “Sunscreens on the market today are backed by decades of scientific research and safe use to help adults and children guard against the dangers of excessive sun exposure,” wrote Alexandra Kowcz, chief scientist at PCPC, in a statement refuting EWG’S 2022 report (read it in full here). PCPC represents and is paid for by the conventional beauty and personal care industry.