The Promise: Foundations, primers, and powders now pack the high SPFs (think 15-plus) for filtering out burning UVB rays, plus protection from skin-damaging UVA. Some even include a UVA rating developed in Japan: You'll see a PA+, PA++, or PA+++ (to indicate the highest level of UVA protection).
The Reality: Because the FDA regulates sun-protection claims, dermatologists are more enthusiastic about the efficacy of SPF cosmetics than of anti-aging makeup. So the number on the label truly reflects the level of UVB filters you'll get. To bolster UVA protection (the rays that are mostly responsible for skin cancers and skin aging), cosmetics often include the minerals zinc and titanium. They form a shield on the skin's surface, diffusing UV light before it can penetrate and damage your cells, Dr. Irwin says. You'll get even better coverage if your makeup contains both. Try Revlon Age Defying Spa Foundation SPF 18 ($14, drugstores) and Prescriptives All Skins Mineral Makeup SPF 15 ($32.50, department stores). Or choose makeup with SPF 30 or up, plus zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Try Jane Be Pure Mineral Skin Perfecting Foundation SPF 30 ($5.49, drugstores) and Shiseido Sun Protection Liquid Foundation SPF 42 PA+++ ($33.50, department stores).
Even the more potent formulas can't replace an SPF day cream. "Relying on makeup alone is like taking a boat intended for lagoon fishing out in the ocean," says Fredric Brandt, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and Miami. One reason: Most people don't apply enough. You need about half a teaspoon for your face and neck to get the required thickness. Mineral-powder foundation, such as Colorescience Suncanny SPF 20 Foundation Brush ($60, colorescience.com), stays put longer, but priming skin with an SPF-infused facial lotion is still recommended. So why bother with SPF makeup? Sunscreen lotions and sprays alone let some UV light sneak through, and people skimp on application, just as they do with makeup. The best way to stay protected: Double-up by layering makeup over a moisturizer containing an SPF of 15 or higher and UVA filters (Mexoryl, Helioplex, or avobenzone). Try Garnier Nutritioniste Ultra-Lift Pro Deep Wrinkle Cream SPF 20 ($17, drugstores) or SkinCeuticals Active UV Defense Sunscreen Cream SPF 15 ($29, skinceuticals.com).
Bottom Line: Ultra-protective makeup is a boon for skin. But think of it as the Robin to your sunscreen's Batman — a dynamic duo stronger together than either is alone.
The Promise: Chemical-shunning makeup has hit the big time. From supermarkets to Saks, new products brim with ingredients only (or mostly) from nature, not the lab. Many claim skin-nourishing properties that are comparable or superior to their chemical counterparts.
The Reality: Natural ingredients can be good for skin. Plant oils and shea and cocoa butters make fantastic moisturizers, Dr. Brandt says. Aloe and chamomile are soothing. And minerals have become the darlings of new makeup lines for sensitive skin. Just as important as what the natural formulas contain is what they leave out: Ideally, it's a long list of potential irritants, including synthetic fragrance compounds and dyes that can aggravate sensitive skin, and parabens, which are not as allergenic as once thought, though companies are using both natural and synthetic substitutions instead. Try parabens-free Almay Pure Blends Makeup ($14, drugstores). Some powdered mineral makeup, like Jane Iredale Amazing Base Loose Minerals SPF 20 ($42, janeiredaledirect.com), doesn't require a preservative at all. "If the formula doesn't contain water, no preservatives are necessary," Romanowski explains. (Consider tossing it if moisture gets in, though.)