What is the difference between the cheaper drug store sunscreens and the more expensive ones?

Dear Dr Irwin, What is the difference between some of the more expensive sunblocks you recommend, and a cheaper drugstore brand sunblock that also uses the active ingredient of zinc oxide? I use Trader Joe's Enrich sunblock, which is ~$4 and has zinc oxide as its main active sunblock ingredient. Incidentally I just discovered that some people are concerned about it containing retinyl palmitate, an agent listed as a 9 out of 10 on EWG's website.Should I be concerned about this ingredient, and if so can I choose a different drugstore brand that is as effective as the more expensive sunblocks you recommend?

Glad you asked this!   Here are the two main differences:

  1. The Percentage of Zinc Oxide.  Zinc oxide is the only sunscreen ingredient currently in sunscreens that blocks thoroughly through the range of both UVB and UBA.   Titanium blocks UVB well but only partially blocks UVA.   The percentage of zinc matters!  If you look at most of the cheaper drug store sunscreens that have zinc oxide the percentage is usually less than 5%.   You want, depending on your lifestyle and time outdoors, between 5 and 20%.   I personally use 7-9% in my daily sunscreen when I’m mostly indoors and much higher 15-20% when I’m out a lot or swimming outdoors.  Don’t forget to reapply after swimming or sweating for sure. 
  2. The Way It Looks on the Skin.   Not very many people like that super chalky look that the cheaper higher zinc sunscreens have.   The more “cosmetically elegant” ones look better, often have a light tint, and go on better over other products or under make-up.

Here’s more on sunscreens and why you need different ones for different activities. 

Hope this helps,  Dr. I


Dr. Brandith Irwin, MD

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Hi, I’m Dr. Irwin, and I believe that consumers need and deserve a medically trained and unbiased skincare advocate.

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