If you’re concerned about sunburn, skin cancer and the signs of aging (and who isn’t?!), then a zinc oxide sunscreen is the best way to safeguard your skin. Here in North America, zinc oxide is the only active ingredient that gives you extensive protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
As a mineral, it’s also very safe, since it remains on the surface of your skin instead of absorbing into blood and tissue—so it won’t cause hormonal disruption. Plus, its anti-inflammatory properties make it ideal for sensitive and acne-prone skin.
The only downside? Zinc oxide has a bad rep for giving your skin a chalky white cast.
But that’s changing, thanks to a new generation of zinc oxide sunscreens that virtually disappear on your skin. Here’s what to look for, and the best formulas I’ve found.
Editor’s Picks (At a Glance)
Best for Acne-Prone Skin
Best for Sensitive Skin
Best with Niacinamide
What to Look for in a Zinc Oxide Sunscreen
First of all, your zinc oxide sunscreen should be highly protective and free of ingredients that could congest or irritate your skin. Here are my requirements:
- At least 20% zinc oxide: If zinc oxide is the only active ingredient, look for a minimum concentration of 20%, up to the maximum allowable 25%. This will ensure that you’re getting good, broad-spectrum, SPF 30 protection. (This is because every 1% zinc oxide gives you the equivalent of 1.6 SPF units, as per industry sunscreen simulation tools.) For more on UV filters and SPF numbers, see my mineral sunscreen tutorial.
- Low in PUFAs: Oils that are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, a.k.a. PUFAs, rapidly oxidize when exposed to heat and light, generating free radicals and even cellular damage. That’s why I avoid sunscreens that have PUFA-based oils in the first five ingredients (which typically represent about 80% of the product).
- Low in fragrance: Since fragrance is the number one trigger for skin reactions, it’s best to avoid or limit it wherever possible.
- Low in silicones: While they are generally not a safety concern, silicones have a film-forming action that can be comedogenic and interferes with cellular renewal. I avoid sunscreens with silicones in the first five ingredients.
- Reef-safe: Zinc oxide sunscreens will not do damage to coral reefs.
- Water-resistant (optional): Formulas labelled as water-resistant will be better at staying put while you are swimming or sweating.
How to Avoid a White Cast
Of course, you also want a zinc oxide sunscreen that is elegant to use, with no white cast. Here’s what I recommend:
- Micronized zinc oxide: “Micronized” means that the zinc oxide has been processed into small particle sizes, which appear clear when rubbed into the skin. Any that are less than 100 nanometers in diameter would be considered “nano” (nanoparticles). However, researchers have found that even particles as small as 30 nanometers cannot penetrate the epidermis.
- Low in titanium dioxide: Contrary to popular belief, titanium dioxide is actually worse than zinc oxide for causing a white cast because it has a higher refractive index. So anyone who is concerned about whitening will likely prefer sunscreens that protect with zinc oxide instead.
- Apply in sections: Zinc oxide sunscreens can often appear white if they are not properly rubbed into the skin. For your face and neck, you’ll need about a quarter-sized amount. Rather than spreading it all over your face at once, work in sections, carefully rubbing a small amount into each area of skin before moving on to the next. This will give you a more even and imperceptible layer of protection.
The Best Zinc Oxide Sunscreens of 2022
Best Transparent: EleVen by Venus Williams Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35
- What it is: EleVen by Venus Williams Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35 is a lightweight facial sun serum that combines sun protection with silky hydration, and applies transparently on all skin tones.
- Active ingredient: 25% zinc oxide.
- Other ingredients: Capric triglycerides, coconut alkanes, safflower oleosomes, prickly pear extract.
- Editor’s notes: This innovative serum sunscreen is a game-changer for anyone who associates mineral sunscreens with a heavy feel and chalky white look. Despite containing the maximum amount of zinc oxide, it has a thin, fluid texture that sinks in fast and becomes invisible on all skin—even the deepest tones. So it doesn’t even look or feel like you’re wearing sunscreen. This formula is also fragrance-free and silicone-free.