The Fun-ification of Sunscreen
The most important task in your skincare routine got a summer makeover — finally.
The go-to derm line has almost become cliché: The best sunscreen is the one you love to use. But for too long and for too many of us, a truly lovable sunscreen has proven elusive — or even nonexistent.
For decades, sunscreen was synonymous with thick white lotions or stinging sprays (that often missed over entire patches of skin). Even in recent years (and with major improvements in mineral formulas), they might take several minutes to rub in, a nonstarter for those with deeper skin tones.
But in 2023, we’ve noticed a shift: The goopy formulas have been replaced with shimmery gels, featherlight mists, and transparent balms that hardly resemble the products of yore. This year, sunscreen finally became fun.
“There has been great innovation in skincare, specifically SPF, over the past decade,” says dermatologist Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, co-founder of Modern Dermatology in Westport, Connecticut. Part of the reason, she says, is simply that people care more; we know about the risks of being in the sun and want products that both protect against sunburn and are actually pleasant to use. “As skin cancer rates and awareness have grown, people have really started to understand the importance of proper sun protection, and with that, the demand for aesthetically pleasing formulas presented itself,” Robinson says.
All this innovation begs the question: Why is sunscreen getting so much better now? The last time a UV filter was FDA-approved was back in the ’90s, and there are eight ingredients currently awaiting review. “Active filters that are FDA-approved for U.S. sunscreen have not been changed in many years. But the formulations, or the delivery vehicles, have definitely been upgraded,” says Julie Russak, MD, founder of Russak Dermatology Clinic in New York City.
In other words: In 2023, we have high expectations and don’t want to look like a ghost in order to step outside safely. Russak says the most complaints about sunscreen formulations are that they are chalky, they’re hard to put makeup on top of, and they smell bad. “The newer formulations completely solve these problems.”
The good news is that if and when new UV filters are approved, this will only be the beginning. “I am excited to see where the category goes in the U.S.,” says Corey L. Hartman, MD, Founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. . “Giving patients more options to protect themselves from the sun is a win-win.” Until then, we’re content with trying these vibey new sunscreens transforming the SPF aisle.
Although our sunbathing habits have changed since the 1980s, one brand that’s going back in time — at least in terms of its marketing — is Vacation. Launched in 2021 with a kitschy nostalgic campaign, the brand went viral for having its own FM radio station via Poolside FM and giving honorary roles at the company like Margherita Shaking Supervisor (add to your LinkedIn at your own risk).
But it’s the products that have secured Vacation a loyal following: Last year, it launched the Classic Whip SPF 30 Sunscreen Mousse, which comes in a whipped cream can, and in April, the Baby Oil arrived, an SPF 30 update to the tanning oil of yesteryear. Made with nourishing ingredients like jojoba oil, vitamin E, and chamomile, it’s designed to feel, smell, and glisten like old-school tanning oil—all while helping protect your skin, rather than frying it under UV rays. The product is hitting at the perfect time: According to Klarna, purchases of sunscreen oil increased by 176% during the first half of April alone.
Coconut-centric brand Kopari is also making waves with its glimmering SPF. In February, it introduced the Rose Gold Sun Shield Body Glow SPF 45, a limited-edition update to last year’s gold sunscreen gel that sold out a whopping seven times. More like a body shimmer that happens to have SPF, it’s made with moisturizing hibiscus and macadamia oils and has a guava and mango scent that feels truly transportive.
In the world of sunscreen, a clear formula can go a long way. Credit where it’s due: Supergoop! may have been the original brand to make putting on SPF seem cool, and in 2018 changed the suncare game with Unseen Sunscreen, an invisible gel that feels like nothing and is without the traditional sunscreen-y scent. And in March, the highly anticipated Unseen Body SPF 40 finally joined the family, offering the same benefits from the neck down.
The only downside? With transparent formulas, it can be harder to tell if you’ve missed a spot. “You still have to keep in mind that the evenness of the application is really what determines the accuracy and efficacy of the SPF that you're applying, or think you're applying,” Russak says.
After launching last year with a line of seafoam-green jelly formulas, Dune Suncare introduced The Sporto Spray, an ultrafine SPF 50 hydrating mist infused with avocado oil and aloe. And for the EltaMD fanatics, the derm- and TikTok-beloved brand also has a brand-new spray, the UV AOX Mist SPF 40, a white-to-clear mineral option that blends in completely and features ingredients like aloe (again), coconut extract, and vitamins C and E. If you’re still feeling burned — so to speak — by spray formulas of the past, it’s not a bad idea to rely on them for reapplying purposes. “I always recommend using a lotion or liquid form of SPF as your base, and then using mists or powders for reapplication,” Russak advises.
Some of the coolest new sunscreens right now are stick formulations — ideal for dabbing on midway through the day. And we mean cool literally: Coola introduced the Refreshing Water Sunscreen Stick SPF 50, which leaves skin with an icy tingle after it touches the skin. Then there’s Live Tinted, whose Huegard Invisible Sunscreen Stick SPF 50 is designed to be completely see-through on all skin tones. Made with antioxidant-rich dragon fruit extract and hydrating rice bran extract, it also imparts the dewiest glow when swiped on the skin.
If a reapplication-focused SPF seems, well, specific, think of all those times you’ve tried to put lotion on over your makeup. That said, you still may want to grab a quick look in the mirror after: “The trick to ensure that you are properly protected is to do multiple passes over your body with the stick and rub the sunscreen in fully,” Hartman says.
Let’s Get Physical
In the past, mineral, or physical, sunscreens came with a major caveat: “Traditionally, mineral sunscreens have not been as elegant as chemical sunscreens, especially for people with brown and black skin,” Hartman says. Now, they are becoming smoother, glowier, and more lightweight — much like their chemical counterparts.
Tinted varieties are particularly popular with consumers; per Klarna, there was a 439% increase in purchases in the last month. Some of the standouts? Hero Cosmetics introduced Force Shield Superbeam Sunscreen, which features a light-diffusing, filter-like finish and apricot tint that appears seamless on all skin tones. And although Soleil Toujours has an untinted version of its new hydrating mineral SPF 50 lotion, it’s the lightly tinted shimmery version that has us dreaming of the beach.
From the derm perspective, a great mineral formula is hard to beat — all the doctors InStyle spoke to still prefer mineral formulas to chemical ones overall. “Breakthrough products that provide physical SPF protection for darker skin types without leaving a white or iridescent cast are innovations indeed,” Hartman says, adding, “Once you find the perfect physical sunscreen, I don’t think there’s a reason to use chemicals.”
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