By Stephanie Saltzman with reporting by Jenna Rosenstein
By now you know sunscreen (all day, every day) is a nonnegotiable. One thing that’s totally up for debate? The type of sunscreen you’re using. Here, our picks for broad-spectrum protection, minus the chemical actives. (Photo: Nicolas Moore)
Why go chemical-free?
Let us break it down for you: We’re pro-sunscreen all the way. And chemical sunscreen ingredients—often with names ending in -salate or -benzone—can give a better look and feel to skin-care products than physical sunscreens since they tend to sink into skin readily and dry clear. But there’s some evidence that they might disrupt hormones. Studies on the subject (which have mainly involved rats, not humans) have been somewhat inconclusive. Oxybenzone, probably the most notorious UV filter, was approved by the FDA way back in 1978. Also referred to as BP3, it’s a member of the phenol family that has become so omnipresent, it’s been estimated that traces can be found in the urine of 96 percent of the U.S. population. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s a toxic substance.
In a 2004 study, researchers found that on the first day after applying a sunscreen with oxybenzone, both young men and postmenopausal women experienced a drop of testosterone levels. But after four days of application, that change was no longer present. The scientists concluded that the fluctuations were not tied to the chemical. The current consensus on oxybenzone is that the hormone fluctuations are not clinically significant. But physical sunscreens can be helpful for anyone with sensitive skin, since they’re less likely to exacerbate irritation and redness. That said, if you do prefer the idea of chemical-free sunscreens, there’s one ingredient to look for: “Zinc oxide, a physical blocker, is the only ingredient you need for excellent broad-spectrum protection,” says David Hershthal, a professor of dermatology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
(Photos: Courtesy of brands)
Eau Thermale Avène Mineral Ultra-Light Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+
Upon first application, we found it hard to believe that this milky, superlight formula was chemical-free. It’s completely sheer and devoid of any noticeable scent, so even sunscreen haters will have a hard time finding anything to complain about. Plus, it’s spiked with glycerin and vitamin E to moisturize and lend an extra layer of antioxidant protection.
Josie Maran Argan Daily Moisturizer SPF 47
This natural formula is so good, it won an Allure Best of Beauty award in 2014. In addition to delivering tons of moisture (what up, argan oil?), the slippery fluid soothes skin (it’s loaded with aloe) and protects it with antioxidants (green tea and jojoba oil). The fruity tropical scent is beachy without being old-school sunblock-y, so you won’t feel weird applying the moisturizer every single day, even those times you’re not on vacation in Hawaii.
SkinCeuticals Physical Matte UV Defense Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50
If your main complaint about most sunscreens is that 1) they leave a chalky cast, or 2) they create an oil slick on your face, then this version will change everything for you. A cross between a mattifying makeup primer and a sunscreen, it provides an even, beige-tinted, shine-free base on skin—and also happens to deliver some serious chemical-free sun protection.
Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Defense SPF 30
With an impressively high 20 percent concentration of its active SPF ingredient, zinc oxide, this fragrance-free lotion protects against UVA and UVB sun damage like a boss. It’s also full of antioxidants and moisturizers—perhaps most notably marula oil, one of our latest obsessions for its ability to hydrate without clogging pores and absorb in seconds.
Tarte Tarteguard 30 Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 30
Tarte’s first-ever sunscreen was worth the wait. The company known for effective, pretty (right down to the packaging) natural products nailed it with this chemical-free formula. The silky, lightweight lotion soaks in quickly, so it’s completely clear and only minimally slick (a slight initial greasiness disappears within minutes). It has a perfume-y—but not unpleasant—floral scent that’s a nice departure from the coconut-and-banana fragrances many cheesier sunscreens rely on. Well played, Tarte.
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Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 60+
One of our chemical-free drugstore favorites, this oil-free sunscreen uses physical filters titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to form a supereffective sun-protective shield. It also feels weightless, won’t irritate sensitive skin, and costs about $10.
MD Solar Sciences Mineral Crème Broad Spectrum SPF 50 UVA-UVB Sunscreen
We won’t lie: This sunscreen has a fairly intense white cast to it at first. But don’t let that scare you—after a minute or two, it completely fades away, so you’re left with a translucent, supersilky (but not greasy or shiny) layer of sun protection. Like many of the other formulas included here, it’s packed with antioxidants (vitamin C, green tea, cranberry fruit, and pomegranate) for bonus anti-aging and anti-dark-spot benefits.
Coola Face SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen Cucumber Matte Finish
In addition to mineral sunscreen ingredients, this featherlight formula contains oil-absorbing silica, so its smooth, nonshiny finish lasts throughout the day (and wears especially well under makeup). Add in a fresh cucumber scent and some shea butter to moisturize, and it makes for one of the most enjoyable sunscreens you’ll ever use.
Beautycounter Protect All Over Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30
Made by the brand that banned 1,500 chemicals from its products, this sunscreen is about as natural as it gets. It protects with a 19 percent concentration of zinc oxide, moisturizes with glycerin, and soothes with aloe. The citrusy scent (which comes from a blend of citrus oils, not artificial fragrance) doesn’t hurt, either.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid
In addition to mineral blockers, this formula contains a blend of antioxidants for increased protection against sun damage. Plus, it’s one of the absolute lightest (as in, it feels as if you’re rubbing water on your skin) chemical-free formulas out there.
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