I’m going to let you in on a secret–there is something I’m even more obsessed about than perfume, travel, food, and books. It’s sunscreen. I realize that it may not sound like a particularly interesting passion. It sounds a little boring (or plain odd, depending on your thoughts about tanning). In my world, however, sunscreen is wonderful and fascinating, and searching for the next perfect product can be an exciting adventure. I learned Korean to read sunscreen labels. (Yes, I admit, I’m a little odd, but I assure you that my eccentricities are mostly harmless.)
My interest in sunscreen was precocious. I never enjoyed tanning, and I figured that it would be easier to keep my skin in its natural pale state than try changing it into something it refuses to be–fashionably bronze. Little by little, I started exploring sunscreens and accumulated quite a repertoire. I wear sunscreen every day, and I enjoy the process.
I also enjoy the results from using sunscreen. It helps to keep my skin smooth, resilient and free from sun spots. No other cream or skin care trick will achieve the same effect over the long run. But when people say that they don’t like sunscreen, I can easily understand their sentiment. Many sunscreens available in the US and Europe are far from ideal. Their finish is either too greasy or too white. US sunscreens don’t offer full spectrum protection, because many active ingredients still haven’t been approved by the FDA. Also, they are often too strongly perfumed. As much as I love scents, I don’t want to smell my sunscreen.
My list below is a small selection of favorites that wear comfortably. When I say sunscreen, I don’t mean moisturizer or foundation with sunscreen; they don’t offer enough protection. I mean a proper SPF product. As with any skincare, everyone has different needs and preferences, so my list is highly personal. I have combination skin, not overly sensitive but occasionally dehydrated. Sunscreen ingredients are divided into chemical and physical blockers. I don’t have a preference for one versus another, but in order to avoid exposing my skin to a single type of ingredient, I rotate. With an arsenal of more than 10 sunscreens, it’s very easy. What I discovered in my search for the one perfect sunscreen is that such a thing doesn’t exist. Depending on the weather and my skin conditions, I vary my selection. Two of the sunscreens below aren’t technically “fragrance-free,” but they don’t have a noticeable scent.
Paula’s Choice Sun Care Non-Greasy Sunscreen for Face and Body SPF 50
I’ve used Paula’s Choice sunscreen for a few years, and I like its gel-like texture. It applies to a transparent, light finish and while it has a slight sheen, it’s neither greasy nor sticky. In the summer, I reapply sunscreen at least twice a day, and Paula’s Choice makes it easy to add layers. Great for face and body. Fragrance-free. $17
Avène Very High Protection Lotion for Children SPF 50+
As you can see from the photo below, this sunscreen is the thickest and richest. It doesn’t irritate my skin, but the finish is too oily. Since this product applies thickly, it’s a little bit tricky to reapply and remain looking presentable. Not an ideal choice for a day of meetings or office work, but a perfect beach companion. Many friends who’ve complained of sunscreen irritating their skin have liked this children’s option. Fragrance-free. €12
Avène High Protection Spray SPF 30
A thinner, less protective version of the aforementioned Avène product. The texture is light, and there is no white cast after it dries down. My skin nevertheless becomes shiny with it, but it’s nothing that a fine layer of powder won’t fix. Unlike other sunscreens on my list, it does have a scent, but it disappears within 10 minutes, so for this reason, I left it on the list. Works well for reapplications. Packaged in a convenient spray bottle, this Avène is so versatile that it often accompanies me on my travels. Good for face and body. €18
Update August 2015: the new batch of this sunscreen has a stronger scent than my older bottle. I’m not sure if the formulation has changed or whether my bottle has mellowed over time. It’s still a very good sunscreen, especially for the bottle, but please keep in mind that it’s scented.
Anessa Perfect UV Sunscreen SPF 50 PA++++
When it comes to sunscreen, nothing beats Asian brands. I could write a tome on Japanese sunscreens alone, but I will spare you and just mention a few of my current favorites. Sunscreen technology evolves rapidly, and products continue to be perfected, so it’s not possible to do a comprehensive list. For more information, along with helpful shopping advice, please take a look at A Guide to Sunscreen in Japan over at the Surviving in Japan blog.
The beauty of Japanese sunscreens is that they give a perfect finish–matte but with a healthy glow. They don’t simply protect my skin, they make it look better. “PA” with a plus sign (+) is used to indicate the level of UVA protection, with four pluses being the best option. Anessa is one of the most popular brands in Japan, and its Perfect UV Sunscreen offers the highest form of protection and has a water light texture and transparent finish. Easy to reapply, fragrance-free. If you live or travel in hot, humid climates, I don’t know of another better product.
But a caveat is in order. Perfect UV Sunscreen contains alcohol, and since I apply it over a layer of moisturizer, it doesn’t bother my skin. Yours might be different. $18
Anessa Mild Face Sunscreen SPF 30 PA+++
Mild Face Sunscreen offers slightly less UVA protection, but it contains no alcohol, leaves a perfect finish and can be reapplied easily. It’s only a little bit thicker than Perfect UV Sunscreen. The finish is matte with a natural glow. Fragrance-free. $19
Mentholatum Sunplay Superblock SPF 50 PA++++
High UVA protection, no alcohol. I love this sunscreen for its feathery light texture and comfortable, non-greasy finish. If I were forced to pare down my collection to just one sunscreen, I would keep Sunplay Superblock. Fragrance-free. $15
La Roche Posay Anthelios XL Very High Protection SPF 50 for Face and Body
La Roche Posay is an excellent brand, and I’ve been using its sunscreens for more than ten years. Unfortunately, Anthelios XL contains alcohol and the recent reformulation made it thicker and heavier. Anthelios XL comes in several different guises, and Very High Protection SPF 50 for Face is the most gel-like, with no white cast. Reapplying it will make skin shiny, so powder is a must. Why do I keep a tube on hand, despite all of these shortcomings? My skin feels good when I wear it, and the brand is very easy to find in Belgium. Fragrance-free. $26
Extra (not pictured in the 2nd photo):
RMK Face Protector SPF 50 PA++++
RMK is a stellar Japanese makeup brand with some of the nicest eyeshadows and nail polishes I’ve tried, and like many cosmetic lines, it offers its own sunscreen. Face Protector has a gel like texture. No shine, no white cast, no sticky finish. It contains alcohol, but it’s also packed with moisturizing ingredients. Also, it has a terrific velvety finish, and it can even be reapplied over makeup. One time when I was wearing it, I was offered a modeling engagement for a skincare commercial. Can anything recommend a product better? Mild scent that vanishes instantly. The downside is that it’s expensive. $38
Update August 2015: I have since discovered another sunscreen that has the same elegant finish as RMK’s and at fraction of a price, Bioré UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ PA++++. It also contains alcohol, but the formula is rich with moisturizers, and it feels great on my skin. Can be reapplied over makeup. Another big plus is that it’s scent-free and reasonably priced. $10-12
Some people mentioned that certain types of sunscreen clog their pores and cause breakouts. If you find this to be the case, try an oil-based cleanser. Most sunscreen ingredients are oil soluble, and water wouldn’t remove them. Every evening I use DHC Cleansing Oil and then my regular cleansing gel (Johnson & Johnson Purpose or La Roche Posay Toleriane). This method has eliminated all sunscreen related breakouts for me.
Availability: Paula’s Choice is available via paulaschoice.com. Avène and La Roche Posay are the European pharmacy brands, and like Asian sunscreens, they’re sold on Amazon and Ebay. In Europe, RMK can be found at selfridges.com.
If you have your favorite sunscreen, please share.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin