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When I was in my teens, I used to lie out in the yard as soon as it was warm enough to don a bikini, rotating myself with military-like precision to ensure an even roasting. These days, as I’ve gotten older, “sun’s out, buns out” means a large beach umbrella and furiously reapplying sunscreen each time I emerge from a dip. Wearing a beekeeper hat and white arm sleeves, Asian auntie-style, is not that far away.
So as a new convert to sunscreen, I was curious to hear that Hawaiian lawmakers had proposed banning so-called “chemical” sunscreens, particularly since I had a trip planned to Oahu to visit a high school friend. The controversy in Hawaii relates to oxybenzone, the active ingredient in common drugstore brands like Neutrogena, Coppertone, and Banana Boat, as well as higher-end versions like La Roche-Posay Anthelios. Oxybenzone has been controversial for some time in the green beauty community; it’s believed to be an endocrine disruptor, though the American Association of Dermatology has deemed the ingredient safe.
In Hawaii, however, the concern is about the environmental effects of the ingredient rather than any damage it might or might not cause to your person. A few recent studies have found that oxybenzone may stunt the growth of baby coral and bleach coral and be otherwise toxic to seven coral varieties. It also might be a possible endocrine disruptor in some aquatic creatures, like shrimp and uni. Basically, if you go swimming in the ocean with oxybenzone sunscreen, you might be killing marine life.
The alternative is mineral sunscreen, which uses zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both to block UV rays. These ingredients are known as “physical blockers” because they physically sit on top of the skin to deflect the sun, as opposed to synthetic blockers, like oxybenzone or avobenzene, which absorb UV rays and then release the energy as heat.
Mineral sunscreens have a bad rap not just because they recall the white noses of ’80s lifeguards, but also because some are not as effective as synthetic sunscreens. The Honest Company got dragged in a slew of vicious Amazon reviews when some babies slathered in the stuff got burned. Consumer Reports found that more mineral sunscreens than synthetic sunscreens failed to live up to their SPF promise.
That’s not to say that there aren’t effective physical sunscreens out there. So I decided to test-drive a bunch of mineral sunscreens while trying not to soak up the rays in Hawaii to find out which ones worked.
There are a gazillion mineral sunscreens on the market. I chose to test ones that have broad spectrum (both UVA and UVB) SPF 30 or higher protection — the minimum according to many dermatologists — and haven’t been trashed on Amazon.
To test these babies out, I slicked one half of my body with a different brand a few different times to see if there were any side-by-side differences. For three weeks, I test-drove them while “surfing” (aka lying on a board the size of boat in the ocean at Waikiki), hiking around the turquoise waters of Hanauma Bay, and watching bodyboarders fight a fierce undercurrent at Sandy Beach. I also made sure to follow some sunscreen best practices — I reapplied every two hours or right after I swam, and I made sure to use a full two ounces for every application. Here’s what I found.
Sport Body Sunscreens
The spoiler is that there were no noticeable performance differences between the sunscreens — half my body did not tan differently even once, but I did find texture and color differences among the lotions. The sport sunscreens (those meant for water activities) tend to have a thicker, tackier texture, which is fine at the beach when you’re covered in sand, saltwater, and sweat anyway. An added bonus of the mineral formulas is that they have all sorts of skin-nourishing ingredients, like tamanu oil, rice bran oil, and mango butter.
1. California Kids Super Sensitive SPF 30+, $19.99 for 2.9 oz: Wanna know you’re covered? This brand — which mixes 12 percent titanium dioxide with skin goodies like coconut oil, rosemary extract, and squalene — tested the best among the mineral brands in Consumer Reports’ lab study. Thick and creamy, it requires some vigorous rubbing to get rid of the dreaded white cast. (The brand offers both California Baby and California Kids labels, but I was told by a brand rep that the formulas are the same— parents had trouble getting their kids to use a product that said “baby” on it and requested a different name.)
2. Raw Elements Lotion Tin SPF 30, $18.99 for 3 oz: Packed in a sleek little tin, this gray-ish cream was the most luxurious of the bunch. (There’s also a sport stick option.) Made with 23 percent zinc oxide, the brand boasts organic raw ingredients, which lend a pleasantly high-end earthy smell. The first three ingredients are tea extracts (black and green) and hemp seed oil. It probably gets some of its dreamy texture from mango and cacao seed butters, and its smell from rosemary oil and coffee bean extract. This was my overall favorite favorite.
3. Coola Mineral Sport Tint Sunscreen Stick SPF 50, $26 for 1 oz: A surefire way of avoiding a white-ish hue is to use a tinted sunscreen, assuming your skin is approximately a similar shade, and this one has the extra SPF protection of 50. The petite stick was easy to throw in a bag for a hike and apply on the fly. Though a little sticky from its base of beeswax and shea butter, it spreads easily and blends in naturally. Plus, it has a pleasantly sweet cocoa smell from the cocoa seed butter, and a host of skin-nourishing oils, including tamanu, sweet almond, and raspberry seed.
Sport Facial Sunscreens
Like the body sunscreens, I tested all the facial sunscreens several times over by covering half my face and neck with different ones. And also like the body sunscreens, the side-by-side tests didn’t reveal any major differences in sun protection. For those of you that sneak a tube of foundation to the beach for post-rinse touch-ups, you can ditch the makeup bag and just use one of the tinted formulas.
1. EiR Surf Mud + Zinc SPF 30, $24 for 2oz: Montauk surfer Jun Lee took inspiration from a Mayan chocolate mask in making this organic zinc sunscreen with both cocoa butter and powder, along with a little tea tree oil. It smells like wet clay in the best kind of way.
2. Raw Elements Tinted Face Moisturizer 30 SPF, $17.99 for 1.8oz: Like the non-tinted version, this creamy luxe lotion with 23 percent zinc oxide also comes in stick form in case you don’t feel like dipping sandy fingers into a nice tin at the beach. It rubs in well and doubles as a light foundation.
3. MD Solar Sciences Mineral Tinted Creme SPF 30, $32 for 1.7 oz: This tinted sunscreen, with 17 percent zinc oxide and 2 percent titanium dioxide, also evens out skin tone. It has the extra satiny feel of a BB cream and spreads on easily, but is still water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and light enough to wear around town. I also tested the non-tinted version with a little extra SPF protection (MD Solar Sciences Mineral Creme SPF 50, $30 for 1.7 oz), which spreads on with a tiny bit of whiteness that fades quickly. You can wear it alone or under foundation.
Daily Facial Sunscreens
Daily sunscreens, unlike sport sunscreens, don’t have water-resistant properties, which is why they are much lighter in texture. I slapped these on before strolling around Chinatown or hitting up a hybrid flower-coffee shop in Kaka’ako. While there’s no sunscreen-toxic danger to coral while sipping on an iced latte, activities in Hawaii often transition into a dip at the beach, so I played it safe. Plus, after giving these silky mineral SPF formulations a spin, I’m wearing them everywhere, coral-adjacent or not.
1. Marie Veronique Everyday Coverage Tinted Sunscreen SPF 30, $48 for 2 oz: The opposite of a thick gloopy foundation, this spreadable, watery formulation has exotic ingredients like pearl powder, radish root ferment, and meadowfoam seed oil, as well as 20 percent zinc oxide. It comes in a glass bottle, so it’s not something to toss in your tote but it will look good on your vanity. While it has a slight medicinal scent, that fades within 30 seconds of applying it.
2. Kypris Heliotropic Pot of Shade SPF 30, $68 for 0.91 oz: This silky moisturizer sets in a dewy glow. Rose flower extract, algae, and aloe juice, plus a trio of oils (native Hawaiian nut oil kukui, pumpkin, and tamanu), soothe and plump the skin. A frosted glass jar and shiny silver top keep things classy.
3. Juice Tinted Mineral Moisturizer SPF 30, $29 for 2 oz: This tinted BB cream, made with 20 percent zinc oxide, comes in four shades. Instead of those puny SPFs (like 8 or 15) in the foundations of yore, it has the full 30. This is a great everyday tint. I also tested out the brand’s Oil-Free Moisturizer SPF 30 ($29 for 2 oz), an extra lightweight formula made with aloe leaf juice, pomegranate seed oil, and cucumber extract that sets in with no white streaks.