Overall, I tend to reach for my chemical SPFs over my physical SPFs. I’ve never truly found a physical sunscreen that didn’t leave some slight white cast and a bit of texture on my skin. Plus I find them to being overly drying (and what’s up with that eye burn?). The only exception being Elta MD (more on this one, and why it’s the overall winner, below). In my opinion, it’s better to find a sunscreen that you’ll actually reach for everyday, than worry about whether it’s chemical or physical. Any sunscreen is better than none at all!
Here are my judging vectors:
- Physical vs. Chemical
- Tinted vs. Clear (or white cast!)
- Texture or pilling (is it layerable under makeup?)
- Does it leave the skin greasy or dry?
- SPF smell, or other noticeable fragrance?
Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreens: What’s the Difference?
Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin and then absorbs UV rays, converts the rays into heat, and releases them from the body. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, octinoxate and oxybenzone. Physical sunscreen sits on top of the skin and reflects the sun’s rays. The minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the main active ingredients in physical blocks. (Source: Piedmont Healthcare)
In general, chemical sunscreens have no white cast. White cast is seen in physical sunscreens due to the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (they are white powders). You cannot remove the white cast completely from physical sunscreens.
All the products on the list below get my stamp of approval, for different reasons, that you’ll soon read.
Note: now that I’m done writing this post, I’m realizing I ended up including a lot of Supergoop products. And that’s for good reason! They really are one of the major leaders in the sunscreen game.
Best Chemical Facial Sunscreens
(First Prize Chemical) Dermalogica Dynamic Skin Recovery SPF 50. Shop here. This product is technically a moisturizer, but I use it like a regular sunscreen (on top of my moisturizer). It’s definitely a hydrating formula, and if you don’t have dry skin like me, you could probably use this as your moisturizer. It has a dewey finish, with a slight sticky residue. No pilling or texture under make up at all. This product is also marketed as an anti-aging product, so if you’re looking for anti-aging properties, this would be a good choice for you! Slight fragrance but no SPF smell. Vegan, Cruelty Free. Best for: dry or combo skin.
(Best Primer Sunscreen) Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40. Shop here. This product is a HERO sunscreen product. If you’re looking for a primer-style SPF, this is the SPF for you. It’s a fragrant-free, clear, gel-like formula that slides on like a silicon primer. It doesn’t soak into the skin like most SPF formulas, but rather sits on top of the skin like a smooth-finish primer. Has a matte finish, not dewey or glowy. The perfect neutral base for makeup. Reef safe, Clean, Vegan, Cruelty Free. Best for: oily or combo skin.
(Best Glowy Finish) Supergoop Glow Screen SPF 40. Shop here. This product looks similar to the Unseen Sunscreen, but is quite different. It’s slightly tinted, dewey and has a glowy/pearlescent finish, similar to the Saie Suncreen below. Leaves a very minimal tacky residue, and layers well under makeup. The downside of this product is that I’ve found it’s a bit difficult to spread/rub in — I feel like I have to use more that I’d expect to get the coverage I want. I actually like to mix this in with other SPFs to add a bit of glow (rather than use it on its own). Clean, Vegan, Reef Safe. Best for: dry or combo skin.
Best Mineral Facial Sunscreens
(First Prize: Combo Chemical + Physical) Elta MD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46. Shop here. This puppy is at the top of award lists constantly, and for good reason. It’s lightweight, oil-free, fragrance free (does not smell like SPF), and good for acne prone skin. It’s neither drying or overly greasy. If it’s hard to believe this is actually a physical sunscreen, because it’s freakishly smooth and leaves zero white cast or textured residue… it’s because it’s not! This is actually a combo chemical + physical formula. Its active ingredients are 9% Zinc Oxide and 7.5% Octinoxate. This is my favorite of the sunscreen bunch! Clean, Cruelty Free. Best for: all skin types.
(Best Glowy Finish) Saie Sunvisor SPR 35. Shop here. This is the top pick of my tinted mineral SPFs. It’s spreadable with a semi dewey finish. Not drying and leaves very little texture for makeup to sit in. This product is slightly tinted so depending on your skin tone, you might not find the perfect match. Also, if you’re blonde, you’ll notice some tinted runoff in your hairline (#platinumproblems). It’s slightly glowy/shimmery but not overkill. The only downside of this product is the packaging. I found the pump to be finicky, and I end up unscrewing the entire pump part to use it. Clean, Reef Safe, Cruelty Free. Best for: combo skin.
BeautyCounter Countersun Daily Sheer Defense SPF 25. Shop here. Slight white cast (comes out of the pump white, and blends out to almost sheer) but too drying for my dry skin. Clean, Cruelty Free, BeautyCounter is also a certified B Crop. Best for: oily skin.
(Best Matte Primer) Supergoop Matte Screen SPF 40. Shop here. Another primer-style SPF from Supergoop. Similar to the Unseen Sunscreen product, but this time a mineral and slight tinted finish. It’s verrrry mattifying, and a bit hard to spread (I felt like I had to use a lot of it) but it leaves a primer-style finish. Like most physical sunscreens, I found this product to be on the drier side. This product may be the one for you if you’re oily and looking for a mattifying product! Clean, Vegan, Cruelty Free, Reef Safe. Best for: oily or combo skin.
Dermalogica Invisible Physical Defense SPF 30. Shop here. This one reminds me of the Beautycounter SPF above. Although I do prefer this one if I had to choose between the two. Comes out of the tube white, and blends out to be almost clear. Remember, no physical sunscreen will be completely clear, ever! It’s definitely super lightweight, and leaves no noticeable texture when I apply makeup over top. Best for: oily or combo skin.
Best Budget SPF
Neutrogena Hydroboost Water Gel SPF 50 is hydrating and incredibly lightweight. It’s non-greasy and soaks into the skin immediately for a totally weightless feel. Scented but very mild. This is a chemical sunscreen.
Makeup Base Products (with SPF) that I love:
I don’t necessarily look for makeup base products that include SPF because I always always always layer an SPF on before my base (you should too!) but a little added SPF protection in addition your sunscreen is never a bad idea.
Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint SPF 40. Shop here. A lovely sheer and dewy lightweight foundation (semi-buildable) with SPF and hyaluronic acid. It comes in 30 (!!) shades — I wear the shade Balos. I dab it on with the dropper and then softly tap/blend with my fingers, as a light coverage base layer after my regular SPF.
It Cosmetics CC+ Cream SPF 40. Shop here. This is labeled a CC cream but I would qualify this as a mid coverage foundation. It comes out thick but blends out really nicely with a beauty blender or your fingers. There is a matte version of this product but I actually think the formula is not as smooth and blendable as the regular version!
A few sunscreens that I wanted to try out, but they either weren’t in stock, or didn’t make the budget (I had to draw the line somewhere!): Black Girl Sunscreen, Krave Beet Shield (I had MANY recommendations from y’all on IG to try this one, but it was sold out everywhere), and Eleven by Venus Williams. I’ll be purchasing these when I finally finish the SPF surplus I have from researching this post 😂.
Do Not Buy
The only sunscreen that I tried for this blog post that I wanted to hurl into a fire was the Versed mineral sunscreen. It had a gritty texture like it was full of sand. Absolutely awful.
This post was not sponsored, but some of the links are affiliate links. Which means if you make your purchase via my link, you support my blog at no extra cost to you! Thank you advance for making your purchase through my links ❤️
DeniseApril 6, 2021 at 11:53 am
Thank you for this review! I have also settled on mostly Supergoop, due to quality and price! Looks like Elta MD is a combo physical and chemical, maybe why it goes on so smooth! When I looked over at the ingredients, it has zinc oxide and octinoxate. Usually when I’m shopping for mineral sunscreen, I’m trying to avoid more chemical blocks, but, I’d be curious to try it for the acne prevention!
AbbyApril 7, 2021 at 12:57 am
So that’s why it’s so clear! Thank you for your detective work!
KelseyApril 8, 2021 at 12:29 pm
Like the previous comment, I wanted to clarify that the EltaMD UV Clear is a combo physical/mineral sunscreen using zinc oxide and octinoxate. I would perhaps revise this post to make that clear, coming from someone who strictly avoids chemical sunscreens because of their health and environmental consequences (octinoxate is not a reef-safe ingredient and has a harmful effect on coral). Just a humble suggestion so folks aren’t misled!
AbbyApril 8, 2021 at 4:09 pm
Thank you Kelsey, the post has been updated!