During my 10 years as a competitive swimmer, I spent a ton of time outside as a kid. With hours and hours training in the sun, I became intimately acquainted with the need for sunscreen. While my white teammates coveted my ability to tan and not burn, my mom would scorn me for my darkening skin. Before each practice, she instructed me to slather 100+ SPF over my face and body. White streaks would accentuate the creases in my nose and elbows, no matter how long I spent begrudgingly trying to rub product into my skin.
Now as an adult, I've learned to love my brownness, but I still take care to protect my skin from the sun. While I love my darker shades, both tanning and burning are symptoms of sun damage that can result in premature aging of the skin and skin cancer. Using sunscreen is one of the most important choices you can make to protect and preserve your skin and should always be a step in your daily skincare routine. Luckily, the products that are available now are much better than the stinging, streaky messes I used in my childhood. Whether you're an athlete who needs water and sweat resistance or you simply want to create a perfect base for your makeup look, there are plenty of options for sun protection out there.
Sunscreen should always be a last resort against sun damage. The World Health Organization recommends limiting your sun exposure during 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and wearing protective clothing as first lines of defense. But when you do use sunscreen, it's best to be well-informed.
When looking for the right sunscreen, there can be an overwhelming amount of choices and information to process. To create this guide, we spent hours researching dozens of sunscreens by scouring skincare subreddits and product reviews from consumers to find the best products in each category. We included asian beauty staples, recommendations from environmental groups, and reviews from colleagues and friends. Just remember, everyone's skin reacts differently — so it might take some trial and error to find what works best for you.
How are sunscreens ranked, anyway?
Most western sunscreens use SPF (sun protection factor) to estimate how long their protection from UVB rays lasts. UVB rays damage the top layers of skin and are the cause of skin tanning or burning, whereas UVA rays penetrate deeper and can cause premature aging and other lasting damage to the elasticity of your skin.
Many of the Asian sunscreens in this guide use the ratings of PPD or PA. Asian countries typically experience much higher UV radiation exposure compared to those in Europe or North America, so protection against UVA rays is of utmost importance. PPD (Persistent Pigment Darkening) acts as a UVA counterpart to SPF ratings, and PA acts as an abbreviated measurement of PPD.
Mineral vs. Chemical sunscreen
The main two differences in sunscreen are whether they are mineral- or chemical-based. Mineral sunscreens work by sitting on top of your skin and reflecting UV rays, whereas chemical sunscreens absorb into your skin and convert harmful radiation into heat. Chemical sunscreens have a nicer consistency for application and are usually more water resistant, but can aggravate sensitive skin. Mineral sunscreens are more effective at blocking both UVA and UVB rays when applied correctly, but can often be streaky to apply and leave a white cast on the skin. Another thing to consider: many mineral sunscreens may leave residues, but they're better for the environment, especially if you're swimming in open water among wildlife.
Below are our 24 favorite sunscreen picks for every need.