So I’ve been investigating my blog stats and discovered that my all-time most visited post is my 2012 sunscreen guide. I’m really pleased if it’s been helpful for people but it made me think that it could do with a refresher. A condensed, easy to navigate consolidation of the suncare advice littered throughout the blog.


I read a lot of scientific research to get my facts straight but I haven’t laboured over ‘the science bit’ in the article. If you’re interested in knowing more about the studies just drop me a line and I’ll happily give you a list of extended reading!

And I’d love to get your feedback on how useful (or otherwise) the finished piece is. Too long, too short, something missing? Just let me know.

The basics

UV light

There are two different types of ultraviolet (UV) light.

  1. UVB light: UVB rays penetrate into the upper layer of skin (the epidermis) and are primarily responsible for the reddening and discomfort associated with sunburn. It’s not thought that UVB rays can pass through glass in significant amounts.
  2. UVA light: UVA rays penetrate deeper into the lower layers of skin (the dermis). They are responsible for photo-aging, contributing to skin wrinkling and loss of elasticity over time, and studies show that sustained exposure damages keratinocytes (cells found in the basal layer of the epidermis), which could lead to the development of skin cancers. UVA rays are 30–50 times more prevalent than UVB rays and they do pass through glass.

It’s simplistic, but it might help to remember UVB for burning and UVA for ageing.

When you choose a sunscreen, it’s really important that it protects you against both types of UV light.


There are two different types of sunscreen:

  1. Chemical sunscreens – chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that are absorbed into the skin and neutralise UV light as it penetrates. There are many chemical sunscreens but you might see any of the following on ingredients lists: Benzophenones (dixoybenzone, oxybenzone), PABA and PABA esters (ethyl dihydroxy propyl PAB, glyceryl PABA, p-aminobenzoic acid, padimate-O or octyl dimethyl PABA), Cinnamates (cinoxate, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, octyl methoxycinnamate), Salicylates (ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl salicylate), Digalloyl trioleate, Menthyl anthranilate, or Avobenzone.
  2. Physical (or Mineral) sunscreens – Physical sunscreens contain minerals that form a protective layer on the surface of the skin and block or reflect UV light, preventing it from penetrating the skin. The two mineral ingredients to look out for are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. They may be found alone or in combination.

Whatever sunscreen you choose it must offer a high enough SPF to protect you from UVB rays and, crucially, broad spectrum protection against UVA light. Remember that the SPF rating is only a measure of UVB protection. Some products use the star rating system for UVA protection but I think the classification is still really unclear. If in doubt, carefully check the packaging and/or quiz the manufacturer.

Sunscreens and UV light

Unfortunately you can’t assume that a single ingredient, be it chemical or mineral, offers protection against both types of UV light. Many don’t. That’s why a lot of sunscreen formulations will include more than one active ingredient to ensure broad spectrum protection. You might also see chemical and mineral sunscreens combined in one product. As far as I’m aware, the only ingredient that offers satisfactory protection against both UVA and UVB when used alone in a sunscreen is zinc oxide.

Belfast_1 (319)The issues

So which to choose? Chemical or physical? My goal here is to give you the information that will help you make up your mind. I have a personal preference but if you pick products you’re not happy with, you’re less likely to use them.

Issues with chemical sunscreens

Most people are now familiar with the research on chemical sunscreens. The most frequently-used ingredients are oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate and avobenzone. There’s been a lot of research into whether UV filters can penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, and even more research on the harm they might cause if they did so. Oxybenzone, one the most common chemical ingredients, is also one of the more controversial and has been shown to penetrate the skin in greater amounts than any other ingredient.

Studies have shown the presence of chemical sunscreen ingredients in human urine and breast milk. They’ve also shown that these ingredients can have harmful oestrogenic or reproductive effects on fish and rats. A 2012 study even suggested a link between the levels of oxybenzone in urine and endometriosis, which is a condition affecting women in which endometrial cells that line the womb migrate to other parts of the body.

Some chemical ingredients also break down in strong sunlight, meaning that your UV protection could reduce over time.

Issues with physical sunscreens

Physical sunscreens contain tiny particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep database – a great research tool if you want to learn about the ingredients in your skincare – notes that while most studies demonstrate that these particles do not penetrate the skin, research is continuing into the smaller ‘nano’ particles. There’s also concern about whether nano particles can change the type of UV protection offered, potentially making a sunscreen less effective against UVA.

Research also indicates that active mineral ingredients can enter the body if inhaled. For this reason, the lower toxicity rating given to mineral creams/lotions by the EWG doesn’t apply to mineral sunscreens sold as sprays or in loose powder formulations, which also has implications for mineral make-up.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide aren’t created equal and you may see them used in combination. Both offer good UVB protection. Titanium dioxide protects against UVB and short-wave UVA radiation (but not long wave UVA, which can still cause damage). Zinc oxide is a better choice, protecting against UVB and most UVA rays, plus it’s known for its antimicrobial and healing properties. However, manufacturers are still struggling with the heavy white cast it leaves on the skin.

wallingford__41.jpgChemical vs physical sunscreens: at a glance

  Chemical sunscreens Physical sunscreens
Pros More pleasant formulations to use (lighter, etc.) 

No ‘white mask’ or ashy effect on skin

Zinc oxide consistently offers excellent UVB and UVA protection 

Less risk of allergic response or irritation (product not absorbed into skin)


Cooler on the skin (UV light is reflected not absorbed)


Offer more sustained protection – do not break down in sunlight


Cons Many chemicals do penetrate the skin and can enter the bloodstream 

Some chemicals have been shown to act as hormone disruptors or to trigger allergic reactions


Many chemical ingredients provide inadequate UVA protection


Formulations can break down in sunlight – more regular application required

Formulations can be heavier or greasier 

Some formulations leave an ashy, white tint on the skin


Ongoing safety debate about the absorption of ‘nano’ particles into the skin

Studies indicate powder or spray formulations could be toxic if inhaled


Common ingredients

Chemical Mineral
Ingredient UV protection Safety issues Ingredient UV protection Safety issues
Avobenzone UVA Breaks down in UV light – must be combined with other ingredients to make it stable; possible skin allergen Titanium dioxide UVB (limited UVA) Possible toxin if inhaled in powder
Homosalate UVB Possible hormone disruptor Zinc oxide UVA and UVB Possible toxin if inhaled in powder
Mexoryl SX and XL (also known as drometrizole trisiloxane) UVA None found so far
Octinoxate UVB Possible hormone disruptor; possible skin allergen
Octisalate UVB None found so far
Octocrylene UVB Possible skin allergen
Oxybenzone UVB (limited UVA) Possible hormone disruptor; possible skin allergen

My personal choice

I’ve said it before and I haven’t changed my mind. Based on the guidance available, I prefer to use physical cream/liquid sunscreens. I’m also going to keep an eye out for formulations that include zinc oxide for better UVA protection, particularly with formulations that I’d use on holiday, wear more often or for when I’m spending more time outdoors. If I do use a chemical formulation now and then, I’ll avoid oxybenzone.

For me, the big issues are the absorption of chemicals into the skin and the fact that it’s easier to get trustworthy UVA protection from physical sunscreens. The EWG analysis suggests that people using chemical sunscreens are exposed to approximately 20% more UVA radiation than those using physical protection.

Clear skies over Longshaw

Product picks

There are so many sunscreens available. I’ve limited my recommendations to physical formulations because those are the products I test and use. The list below includes products I’ve tried personally and those I’ve heard good things about. It also includes a few that include zinc oxide that I’ve discovered on my internet travels but haven’t yet tried or read a review of. If you’ve any feedback on any of these products, please do leave a comment.



Thanks to a lovely reader – Helen – who left a brilliantly detailed comment under my previous sunscreen post, I’ve also added the following to my ‘must try’ list. Thanks so much, Helen!

  • (FOR FACE) Organic Botanics Organic Moisturising Nutritive Extra Rich. Helen says “I don’t think it uses a mineral but a rice bran oil or something. I have really sensitive skin, and have tried all the products you mention and a multitude more but have found none so good as this one. (Have had sun sensitive eczema since childhood and was also a psoriasis sufferer prior to liver detox and diet changes.) Wish I was rich enough to use organic botanics all over my body…think 60 ml retails at about 21 pound but they do 10% discounts every now and then.”
  • (FOR BODY) Helen says “Dr Mercolas sunscreen is good on the body...”

Staying safe in the sun

  • Always in moderation. Sunscreen doesn’t give you license to bake. Ironically, studies indicate that incidences of skin cancer continue to rise despite the growth of ever more sophisticated sunscreens. This isn’t because they don’t work. It’s more likely to be because people regard themselves as protected once applied and stay out in strong sunlight for far longer than they should (or would) otherwise have done. Even if you’ve applied sunscreen, limit your exposure to strong sunlight and seek shade between 11am and 3pm when the sun is at its fiercest.
  • Apply in time. And reapply. Physical sunscreens offer instant protection on application but if you do want to use chemical formulas, remember that you need to apply 20–30 minutes before sun exposure to allow them to absorb and be effective. And ALL sunscreens need regular reapplying. If you haven’t been swimming, sweating or rolling in sand, every couple of hours is probably fine. But if you get wet, reapply afterwards. Remember that ‘water resistant’ is not ‘water proof’.
  • Apply enough. The SPF rating on the bottle is only true if you apply enough. You want 2-3 teaspoons for your face and neck/chest and 2-3 tablespoons for your body. This is why make-up rarely offers adequate sun protection on its own. If we applied the correct amount we’d all look a bit too ‘trowelled on’!
  • Avoid unexpected pink bits. The best way to avoid those painful little strips along the edge of your clothing or swimsuit is too apply sunscreen while you’re completely in the buff. Then get dressed. This is also recommended because not all clothing is created equal when it comes to UV protection. Dark, closely-woven fabrics offer better protection so it is possible to burn through some of our lighter, floatier summer clothes and it’s better to have some sunscreen on underneath.
  • Don’t forget the oft-forgotten bits. Like your ears, the backs of your hands and the tops of your feet. One of my worst experiences was burning the parting in my hair. You’d be better off brushing your hair over your parting, smoothing through some sunscreen (for a wet-look effect) and tying it back in a ponytail.
  • Use it up or throw it out. The active ingredients in sunscreen will degrade over time. Check the expiry date on your sunscreen and don’t use last year’s bottle on this year’s holiday.
  • Don’t be sucked in by SPF50+. There is no point in using a sunscreen with a rating above SPF50. The difference in the level of protection offered is actually minimal (not that you’d know this from the price!) and it can lull you into a false sense of security about the amount of time you can safely spend in the sun. I use anything from 15–40/50, depending on where I am and the time of year.
  • Eat your SPF. Get plenty of veg and drink green tea. Recent studies show that polyphenols in green tea and carotenoids and lycopenes in fresh fruit and veg offer some protection against sunburn and UV damage.
  • If in doubt, check it out. Be aware of your skin and keep an eye out for changes. If you notice anything unusual, visit your GP. Look out for moles that change colour or shape, or become itchy, scabbed, crusty or bleed. And don’t forget areas that you don’t see very often, like your back or the back of your legs. Taking pictures for future comparison can be very helpful.

Have fun in the sun, you guys, but don’t forget to look after your skin!


  1. Thanks for this amazing resource! I love your guide and have sent it to my boyfriend to read. I was going to do a bit more research into sunscreens to make sure I am using the right type, but now I don’t have to as I came across your amazing guide!
    I love the lists you compiled for face and body sun protection. I am actually currently using Green People day solution spf15 and I find it ok but I would be interested to try other spf face creams from your list. I’ve used Green People scent free sun lotion spf25 in the past and I found it ok, I just didn’t think it was suitable for sports people who tend to sweat more so this year I was using Jason Sport sunscreen spf45, which I already finished and I found better for doing sports than Green People’s one. I am now using Sun milk by AnneMarie Borlind spf30 but I really need to study the ingredients to see if there is any suspicious ones!

    • Thank you! It’s so great to hear that it’s been useful for people. Sunscreen is such a huge area to research and it’s so frustrating that there’s no easy right or wrong answer. And you make a really good point that your choice of sunscreen often depends as much on what you’re doing as on any other factor. I’ve not heard of the AnneMarie Borlind so I just had a quick google and couldn’t figure out what the active sunscreen ingredient was. Might be one I’ve not heard of… I’m officially intrigued!

  2. awesomest post ever! does the kimberlay sayer spf leave a white cast? i have black skin, so even a slight white cast will look white on me, thanks

    • Oh thanks so much! In my experience, the Kimberly Sayer goes on quite white but rubs in almost instantaneously. My big tip is to rub it in gently to begin with and then to press over any white bits – it just seems to make them disappear where rubbing doesn’t. I really hope it would work for you in the same way it does for me but it’s so hard to be sure. I know LoveLula do samples, but the KS isn’t among them. Although if you’re US-based you might be able to try in store? Good luck!x

  3. Pingback: SUNSCREEN: my guide and recommendations | naturalbeautycabinet

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