Everything You Need to Know About Chemical Sunscreens

Protect your skin this season with these proven sunscreen favourites

Protect your skin this season with these proven sunscreen favourites

The best sunscreen is the one that you’ll consistently wear, and for many that means using a chemical sunscreen.  They have a lot of advantages over mineral sunscreens: they’re largely invisible so there’s no ashy white cast, they easily protect across the full spectrum of UV rays (including both bands of UVA) and they’re often thinner in texture so they sit more comfortably on the skin.

But there are less desirable features to consider as well. If you have sensitive skin, chemical sunscreens can be irritating. And if any of it makes its way into your eyes, they’ll we watering until you wash it off. And avobenzone (a common active ingredient in many chemical sunscreens), will actually stain light coloured fabrics—the inside of your face mask, towels, clothing—which can be startling at best, and truly exasperating at worst if the stain isn’t treated properly and timely.

Other drawbacks to chemical sunscreens, however, are more urban legend than science. One infamous “fact” that keeps circulating references a Swiss study that proves oxybenzone (another common active ingredient in chemical sunscreens) actually kills. However, this study involved rats, not humans, and the rats ingested the oxybenzone, something we should never do. A follow-up study in the Archives of Dermatology actually calculated that the average-sized American woman would have to apply sunscreen to 100 percent of her body every single day for almost 35 years in order to get the same dose of oxybenzone as the rats did. The study concluded that even with absorption of oxybenzone into human skin, there are no proven harmful effects through the topical use of chemical sunscreens.

And there are lots of other myths out there about sunscreens…

  • Myth: Sunscreen lowers vitamin D levels.
  • Truth: In order for this to happen, you’d have to be dipped into a vat of sunscreen from head to toe and make no movements that would compromise this layer. Harvard Medical School has actually shown that people apply sunscreen so inadequately and so irregularly that its use has no overall affect on vitamin D levels.
  • Myth: Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays, while mineral sunscreens work by scattering UV rays.
  • Truth: This is what we all thought not too long ago. But now we understand that both kinds of sunscreens largely work by absorbing UV rays. Mineral sunscreens actually absorb 95 percent of UV rays and deflect or scatter only 5 percent of UV rays.
  • Myth: You can buy reef-safe sunscreens.
  • Truth: Coral reef-safe sunscreens are a myth through a technicality. There’s no industry definition for “coral reef-safe”, which means companies can’t empirically test for a standard that doesn’t exist. The most common chemicals singled out as being dangerous to coral reefs are oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are already banned in Hawaii and Hawaii State Legislature has just recently passed legislation that will broaden the ban to include avobenzone and octocrylene starting in 2023.
  • Myth: Glass protects you from UV rays.
  • Truth: Glass can block UVB rays, but not UVA rays (same goes for clouds). So if you sit in your car a lot or work close to a window, you’ll still want to protect yourself against the type of rays that are responsible for premature aging, DNA cellular damage, cataracts and more.
  • Myth: Sunscreen in makeup provides enough protection.
  • Truth: Not only will you never put on enough makeup to reach the level of stated SPF (you need approximately 1/4 teaspoon or two finger lengths of sunscreen for your face), “SPF” only refers to UVB rays, not UVA. The sunscreen in makeup is very rarely full spectrum and also rarely designed for longevity.

Finding the right sunscreen, the one you’ll wear every day, can be challenging. So here are eight of our favourite chemical sunscreens to help you find the perfect match…

1. Clear Sunscreen Stick SPF 50+ by Shiseido, $40

This sunscreen comes in a stick form, similar to a small deodorant. It truly does apply  clearly, so it’ll work across the full range of skin tones, and won’t leave any noticeable residue in eyebrows or beards. It’s actually a fantastic option for those looking to protect the tops of their heads or hairlines, and works well both under and over makeup. Its compact size makes this one ideal for keeping with you when you’re out, for the fastest, easiest sunscreen re-application. The only drawback to this is that it’s so clear and so lightweight that it can be difficult to keep track of where you’ve already applied, especially if you’re putting it on someone else.
Available online

2. Moisture Sun Protector SPF 35 by Amore Pacific, $88

Packed full of skin care benefits featuring Asian botanicals, this is a thicker lotion dispensed from a squeeze tube with nozzle tip. Those with oily or combination skins could easily use this as their daily moisturizer.  It comes out white, but dries clear, leaving a satin finish with slight sheen. It bears the hallmark Amore Pacific scent (floral), which dissipates quickly.
Available online

3. Anthelios Ultra Fluid SPF 50 by La Roche Posay, $29

This is a classic for good reasons: lightweight, dries invisible, unscented and is an excellent broad spectrum protector. It comes in a small, hard plastic bottle with fine nozzle tip. It’s best to apply this in stages, dispensing just a small amount and covering small sections of the face before moving onto the next section. The texture is water-thin (shake well before every use), but it does dry fairly quickly thanks to its “Netlock” technology, which acts as a sort of film former and helps it stay water resistant for up to 80 minutes. It does leave a very high-shine finish.
Available online

4. Pinea-C Brightening Serum Cream SPF 30 by Garnier Green Labs, $22.99

This is presented as a triple duty product: serum, moisturizer and sunscreen. However, the pineapple extract is the second-to-last item on the ingredients list. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad sunscreen; it’s just a bad serum. If serum is an essential part of your skincare routine, definitely use your own, then apply this as your moisturizer with sunscreen. It’s a fragranced, lightweight lotion that comes in a plastic bottle with pump dispenser.
Available online

5. LiftActiv Specialist Anti-Aging Cream SPF 30 by Vichy, $61.95

This is a nice one-and-done moisturizer with sunscreen that includes anti-aging benefits such as vitamin C, biopeptides and hyaluronic acid. It’s a heavily fragranced, white lotion that comes in a rectangular tube with pump dispenser, which dries down to an invisible sheen. Once it’s set, it’s best not to disturb the surface as it will pill with additional manipulation, so it’s not ideal for those looking to apply makeup on top.
Available online

6. Dry Touch Facial Sunscreen SPF 50 by Clarins, $32

Don’t get too excited. While this is a great sunscreen, it’s far from a dry finish. In fact, it’s so moisturizing that it’s probably best for those with drier skins; those with combination or oily skins will find this far too rich. This sunscreen will not only give your skin a dewy, glass finish, but will also nourish it with antioxidants and aloe vera. It’s also quite fragranced with a blend of tangerine, blackcurrant, peony and sandalwood.
Available online

7. Skin Active Matrix Support SPF 30 by Neostrata, $75

This is probably the most cosmetically elegant sunscreen. It’s unscented, completely clear once settled, dries to a non-sticky light satin finish and layers beautifully without pilling. It comes in a tube with pump dispenser and should work well with most skin types; those with very dry skin may benefit from a light moisturizer first. It also contains skin care benefits such as peptides and neoglucosomine, an amino sugar that helps resurface and brighten the complexion.
Available online

8. Prevage Anti-aging Moisture Cream SPF 30 by Elizabeth Arden, $170

Hands down, the very best anti-aging product you can use is sunscreen. And for those who prefer to invest in their skincare, this is a fantastic option that combines high-performance skin care to diminish signs of wrinkles, smooth texture, plump with moisture, all while protecting against full spectrum UV. This comes in a jar, that dispenses the cream through an air-tight push-top system.
Available online