After spending 60 hours doing research and interviews, and many more wearing sunscreen on our bodies, we’ve determined that the best sunscreen for everyday use is the one you’ll apply liberally and often, so it should be inexpensive but still feel good. But most people don’t wear nearly enough sunscreen—which means you probably don’t either. That’s why we recommend Coppertone Ultraguard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70.
At just over a dollar per ounce, Coppertone’s Ultraguard Sunscreen works as well as sunscreens that cost seven times as much, but it is still smooth and easy to apply. We liked this one best because it has no added fragrance, is water-resistant, has a pleasant texture, and comes in a bottle that’s easy to hold and easy to close.
According to all seven dermatologists we interviewed, as well as the many scientific papers and lit reviews we read, if you’re outside, you should be applying a full shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to your near-naked body about once an hour in order to get adequate protection with your sunscreen. That’s a lot, and it means the best sunscreen needs to be affordable. Ideally, it should go on easily and feel good against your skin as well. If you’d prefer a spray sunscreen, or need something that won’t stain white clothes, we have picks for you, too.
Coppertone Ultraguard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70 has a thin texture for its SPF rating, making it among the easiest to apply out of the 14 we tested. It’s water-resistant (not all sunscreens are) for up to 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time a sunscreen can claim to be per FDA guidelines. Unlike many sunscreens we considered and some we tried, it won’t make you look like a ghost or smell like a Bath & Body Works. In fact, it smells like almost nothing. It comes in the best format to ensure optimal protection: lotion.
If you prefer a sweeter smell over the (very) faint smell of sunscreen, we recommend Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50. It’s slightly looser in texture and easier to apply than our top pick, but has a very similar list of active ingredients. Like our top pick, it has a bottle that’s easy to hold and easy to snap shut. The smell is flowery and won’t appeal to everyone. Don’t be fooled by the “babies” in the name; this sunscreen is for everyone.
We think most people will be happy with the performance, look, feel, and price of a chemical sunscreen like our pick and runner-up. But whiter zinc oxide and titanium oxide physical and combination (physical and chemical) sunscreens can be good for people who hate the classic smell of sunscreen, prefer a stickier texture, want a sunscreen that can’t stain white clothes, want to be able to see where their sunscreen has been applied, or have an allergy to common ingredients in chemical sunscreen formulas. If that’s you, go with CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50. It’s a zinc-based combination sunscreen, but it has all the features of a physical sunscreen while being a little easier to rub in than most true physical sunscreens. It came highly recommended to me by an archaeologist who spends every June in the Near East working outside on digs. Our testers liked it too: “It rubs in pretty nicely and cleanly,” one reported—that’s far more than we could say for many other zinc-based sunscreens we tried. And it smells like absolutely nothing. The major drawback: It’s about twice as expensive as our main pick.
Spray sunscreens are deceptively hard to apply adequately. Still, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use, so if you (or your kid) dislike the feel of lotion sunscreens, try Banana Boat UltraMist Sport Performance Sunscreen SPF 100. Out of the three sprays we tested with a panel, it’s the only one that everyone said they would buy. (Applied properly, spray sunscreens will still feel slick and greasy.) It’s less expensive than many sprays we considered, and it produces a more direct stream of mist than others we considered so that more of it ends up on your skin if you hold the nozzle close to the surface. The bottle was the easiest to hold, even when our hands were sweaty and slippery, thanks to a groove near the top. The UltraMist smells like sunscreen, a fact that some testers appreciated. Like all sprays, it’s harder to apply accurately than lotion, and it’s quite a bit more expensive (about two times as much per ounce, if you’re applying it carefully and don’t lose it all to a breeze). If you are using a bottle of spray correctly, you would likely kill a whole bottle in a single beach day just to cover one person. But if it will bridge the gap to proper application, the extra cost may be worth it to you.
If you’d prefer a spray sunscreen that smells more sweet than sunscreen-y, or want a drier-feeling spray, try the Neutrogena Beach Defense Water + Sun Protection Spray SPF 70. It’s pricier than the Banana Boat UltraMist, and the spray is more aerated and less direct, so you’ll have to empty out more of the bottle to ensure good coverage. The bottle is easy to hold thanks to grooves at the top. If you prefer to buy sunscreen online, the Beach Defense may be harder to find.
If you’re concerned about specific ingredients, keep this in mind: Everything I read and everyone I talked to said that UV radiation—a known carcinogen—is a far more established threat than anything we are currently putting in sunscreen. A formula that encourages frequent and liberal application will serve you better than a high-end sunscreen you try to use sparingly because of cost or chalkiness.
We talked to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski; Lisa Quale, a health educator at the Skin Cancer Institute at the University of Arizona; and five dermatologists: Rachel Herschenfeld of Dermatology Partners; Steven Wang of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; Lindsey Bordone of ColumbiaDoctors; Erin Warshaw, chief of dermatology at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center; and Patricia Treadwell of Indiana University, who specifically works with kids.
We read a lot of academic papers: papers on the risks of feeding the chemicals in sunscreen to rats, papers on how people apply sunscreen (spoiler: poorly), papers comparing ingredients, and review papers.
We also read through maybe a dozen sunscreen product lists from non-academic publications—and then tossed most of them out, because of their utter lack of basis in science. We relied on independent testing from Consumer Reports to weed out sunscreens that have an SPF that’s much lower than the one on the label.
We hung out in the lotion aisles at drugstores and the sun protection section on Amazon. We did a price, smell, and feel (based on user reviews and ingredients lists) comparison of 70 sunscreens that hit the American Association of Dermatology requirements for a suitable sunscreen.
Many sunscreens out there will hit our basic requirements. If you are satisfied with the price and feel of whatever you buy normally, you might be fine. But there are a few big reasons why you might need to consider buying something new.
If you’re using a spray sunscreen, make sure you’re using it properly—it may not be as easy or as comfortable to use as you think. You need to apply the same amount of spray as you do lotion (1 ounce by weight for a mostly naked body), and it takes about two minutes of spraying to get that much sunscreen out of a spray bottle. Spray sunscreen has to be rubbed in, too. If you find this to be a pain, consider switching to a lotion.
There’s really no such thing as “sensitive skin” sunscreen, according to Romanowski and Treadwell, our chemistry expert and one of our dermatologists, respectively. If you have sensitive skin, forget the marketing labels and just pick something without an added fragrance—which can be genuinely irritating. Our experts tell us that all ingredients have the potential to bother someone. “What I tell parents is if they put a sunscreen on and the child turns red without exposure to the sun, then I tell them to avoid that particular sunscreen,” said Treadwell, who sees a lot of child patients with skin issues. Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens, is an allergen for some people—it’s hard to tell how many people the problem affects, as we explain in our blog post on sunscreen scares. But if your sunscreen is making you itch, try switching to one that lacks that ingredient, such as our combination sunscreen pick.
Are you trying to stretch the life of a pricey bottle of fancy sunscreen by applying it in scant amounts? That’s bad: Sunscreen works only when applied often and in large quantities. Consider going through it quickly, and then picking up our price-conscious pick.
The exception: Do not put sunscreen on an infant. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping humans younger than 6 months out of the sun entirely.
Even with everyday use, applying sunscreen doesn’t guarantee perfect protection. You may inevitably miss patches of skin, or sunscreen may dissolve away in your sweat.
Every single dermatologist I spoke to mentioned that avoiding the sun, in combination with using sunscreen, is really the best way to protect yourself. These supplemental methods of sun protection include protective clothing, umbrellas, and the choice to not structure your entire summer around lying out on the beach for hours and hours every single day. When I asked Quale, who works with high-risk skin cancer patients as an educator, how effective sunscreen is at preventing disease, she launched into a spiel on sun abstinence: “Covering up is all around a better protection: There’s no user error.” But when bundling up in the shade is impractical, everyone should be using sunscreen.
The sun isn’t total evil to our skin: It helps us produce vitamin D. According to review papers we read, most people don’t apply sunscreen properly, so not getting vitamin D is not an issue. If it is—you’re going to do a great job of wearing sunscreen now, right?—you can just take a vitamin. (In fact, when I went to the doctor recently and found out my levels were low, that’s exactly what she recommended.)
Yes. Don’t hoard sunscreen: It breaks down over time. Most bottles are labeled with an expiration date that’s a year or two from when you buy it. If there’s no date, the Mayo Clinic recommends tossing after three years. And don’t keep your sunscreen bottle in the car, or in direct sun at the beach—that may make it deteriorate faster.
Our sunscreen picks work for most everyday activities that the average person might encounter outdoors. However, if you experience the outdoors in more extreme ways, such as surfing, swimming, or marathon running, then you may not be able to apply sunscreen at our recommended frequency (hourly) and in the recommended quantity (1 ounce over your mostly naked body). If that is the case, your better bet for protection is to cover up with clothing, like a rash guard, shirt and pants, or a wetsuit. These guidelines from the Skin Cancer Foundation on sun-protective clothing are worth reading. As a rule of thumb, darker, tightly woven clothing is better than lighter-colored material that you can see through. If you need to protect your face, our beach guide has a bunch of recommendations for hats.
Along with visible light—the very power of life on our planet—the sun emits UV, or ultraviolet, radiation that is not visible to us. It is bad for your skin. It causes reddening, sunburn, wrinkles, liver spots, saggy skin, and, obviously worst of all, cancer.
Skin cancer is a big problem: Each year in the US, nearly 5 million people are treated for it, with an $8 billion-plus price tag, according to Wang, one of the dermatologists we interviewed. “[And] we’re not even talking about death and psychological trauma.” (Wang’s work, which we consulted for this guide because he writes comprehensive review articles, is not paid for by industry. But he is paid consulting fees from skin care companies to share his expertise.)
You can mitigate all of this by putting on sunscreen, which either absorbs or reflects—more on the difference in a minute—the UV rays before they reach your skin.
Not all sunscreens are created equal, safety-wise.
You might consider going with an SPF significantly above 30 for another reason. While the FDA requires that companies produce test results to prove their sunscreens match the SPF stated on the label, Consumer Reports’s independent lab testing claims that the listed SPF is often higher than the effective SPF. To add to the confusion, sunscreen formulas may change year to year, meaning whatever did a fine job of protecting you in the summer might be less effective if you re-buy it for a trip to the Caribbean in April. Your chances of getting an effective SPF above 30 regardless of what the label says are better if you buy a sunscreen labeled SPF 50 or even 70. However, our argument still stands: Even an SPF 15 that you apply liberally and often can protect you better than a 50 or 70 you put on only once in eight hours.
Higher SPF doesn’t pick up the slack for poor application. Some studies have found a non-linear correlation between the amount of sunscreen people apply and the effective SPF, possibly in part because higher SPF sometimes means thicker sunscreen, which is more difficult to apply. Wang warns against a false sense of safety from super-high SPFs: You can’t put on SPF 100 and then be invincible against the sun forever.
Developing good habits will do more to protect most people from the sun than worrying about having a precise amount of SPF. SPF 30 blocks an additional 4 percent of the total sunrays compared with SPF 15, and SPF 50 blocks an additional 1 percent of rays compared with SPF 30. While that difference can affect your skin, and to a greater degree when you’re nearer to the equator, it’s far smaller than the typical error in application: Dermatologist Steven Wang estimates that most people apply a third of the sunscreen they need. While inaccuracy in advertising is never good or defensible, the real-world implication of these findings by Consumer Reports about label inaccuracy are relatively minor compared with the larger and more common issue of irregular, insufficient application.
SPF number aside, it is critical to have a sunscreen that is labeled “broad spectrum.” This label means the sunscreen has ingredients that protect against both kinds of UV rays, UVA and UVB. UVB causes sunburn, and UVA leads to wrinkles. Both types of radiation can lead to cancer.
While there’s no SPF rating equivalent for UVA rays, a sunscreen that passes the FDA’s broad spectrum test has UVA coverage proportional to its UVB coverage. If a sunscreen has materials in it to protect from UVA rays, it will say “broad spectrum” somewhere on the bottle.
UVB rays cannot go through glass, so if you are inside for most of the day, you’re well-protected from those. You are not protected from UVAs, however, just by being indoors, because they are able to penetrate glass.
Dark spots and wrinkles—not to mention cancer, to some extent—are a feature of skin that’s spent years and years soaking up the UVAs that can go through a car or bay window. “Who wants to be wrinkly?” asked dermatologist Bordone, rhetorically. Sunscreen isn’t just important in the short term to protect from sunburn; it’s an investment in the lifelong condition of your skin, and more important, protection against cancer.
There are two main kinds of sunscreen formulas: physical (reflects the beams away) and chemical (a reaction soaks up rays before they hit your skin). There are also combination sunscreens, which have some chemical filters and some physical.1 Chemical sunscreens tend to be greasier, but they go on translucent. Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker and go on more white.
Of the formulas, cancer educator Quale said: “The only reason to choose one over the other is personal preference.”
However, there is evidence that physical sunscreen SPFs tend to be less accurate. Of the physical sunscreens CR tested this year, none met their SPF claim. If you choose to use a physical sunscreen, as with any sunscreen, you should take extra care to apply it thoroughly.
Active ingredient/UV filter name
|ecamsule (Mexoryl SX)||UVA2|
|titanium dioxide||UVB, UVA2|
|zinc oxide||UVB, UVA1, UVA2|
Physical sunscreens work by deflecting UV rays using the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, often in tandem.
These also come in “micronized” and “nano” versions, which can go on a little less white and be easier to rub in, especially in sunscreens with a high zinc oxide content. (And don’t be worried about these teeny particles penetrating your skin, as stuff that you put on your skin sometimes does: According to this review article, there is no published evidence that says they’ll do you harm.)
The more expensive physical sunscreens can have a higher zinc oxide content. Higher is better, Quale said, but it also makes you pastier (and can be more expensive). She recommends 5 percent at least, but she said the most important things are to use enough and reapply.
Baby sunscreens can be a cost-effective physical option, though they don’t always advertise themselves as physical—check the ingredients and see if they contain just zinc oxide and titanium dioxide under the “active” list.
Chemical sunscreens, by contrast, work by absorbing the photons of the sun’s rays before they reach your skin; the photons’ energy goes into breaking down those chemicals rather than into your skin. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, and ecamsule are the three main filters. There’s a whole slew that you’ll find on bottles, but these are the big ones.
Some groups—like the Environmental Working Group—see oxybenzone as a cause for concern. We do not. Here’s why some people are worked up about oxybenzone: In an animal study in which researchers fed rats a very high dose of the chemical, they found it accumulated in the livers, kidneys, spleens, and testes of the rats; in female rats, it made their uteruses grow larger. It acts as what’s called an endocrine disruptor—basically, it messes with the hormones in these rats.
And this is why we’re not concerned: According to Wang’s work, you’d have to apply a 4-ounce bottle of sunscreen every week for 70 years to accumulate the equivalent topical exposure as what the rats were fed. Even then, it’s not the same, because in studies on humans, topically applied sunscreen (to the skin, like it’s supposed to) is absorbed—and then flushed out in their pee. However, the rat study also showed that it wasn’t acutely toxic to the rats, which means you’re not gonna die if you ingest a little sunscreen anyway.
So, here’s the take-home lesson from the rat research: Sunscreen is not food.
The EWG has also highlighted allergic reactions as a problem with oxybenzone, but in reading the actual paper, we discovered that these reactions are limited to a small number of people who have a condition called photoallergic contact dermatitis. In the study, only a quarter of people with this condition reacted to oxybenzone. If you have this condition you likely already know, but if you do and need to avoid oxybenzone for this reason, you can use our physical sunscreen pick.
Every single expert I spoke with and every review paper I read (of course, we don’t know every single thing there is to know about it) very clearly concluded that there is no realistic reason to worry about slathering yourself with oxybenzone. While studies often raise concern about certain materials, it’s important to remember that in assertions of risk, quantity matters. As scientists are fond of pointing out, even water can kill you in high enough doses. The risk of getting cancer via sunrays far outweighs the documented risks posed by the chemical. After all this research, I will continue to use oxybenzone-based sunscreen. I would happily rewind to my babysitting days and slather my most favorite child with oxybenzone-based sunscreen.
All of our experts agreed that you’d be fine with a combination of chemical filters. Studies show that as long as you are applying like you are supposed to, chemical filters can provide good coverage. (And while some doctors we spoke with were keen on physical or combo formulas, the consensus was that having a formula you like, with an adequate SPF, was the most important consideration.)
A note about filters, now that you know what they are: According to Wang, you can’t just look at the ingredients on a sunscreen bottle and figure out how good the protection is. Though experts agreed that zinc and avobenzone were two of the best filters, how well they protect you depends not just on the amount in the sunscreen but the inactive ingredients that make them stick to your skin (and in the case of the avobenzone, prevent it from breaking down). But like SPF ratings, this is another element where reapplying every hour is a smarter approach than relying on some chemical to stick to your skin just a little bit longer.
In addition to the active ingredients, it is important that your sunscreen has a preservative so it’s safe. Otherwise, microbes can grow in it and possibly infect you. (Last year, a bunch of baby sunscreens were recalled because they contained dangerous microbes. The paraben alternatives used in the sunscreens were not synthetic chemicals, but they were also not effective.)
Parabens are a common kind of preservative, present in some sunscreens and many other things that you buy and slather on your body. Parabens have lately been vilified with repeated rumors saying they can penetrate your skin and encourage cancer growth, or disrupt hormones. A lengthy report from the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concludes that parabens are safe in normal cosmetic use. A 2002 study suggested that they might be harmful to the reproductive systems of rats and is the source of some paraben fears. But follow-up studies could not confirm the results. According to the American Cancer Society, carefully designed studies on breast cancer and parabens have found no connection.
Paraben fears are causing cosmetic companies to turn to other preservatives, like methylisothiazolinone, as an alternative. “It’s a shame because paraben is a great preservative,” said dermatologist Warshaw. Very rarely, people can have an allergic reaction to methylisothiazolinone. There’s no need to avoid it, but if you do break out in a rash, this might be the culprit. Most sunscreens, including our picks, still use parabens and avoid this issue.
There’s also other stuff that chemists put in sunscreens to make you buy them.
Some sunscreens boast that they contain antioxidants, which are theoretically nice because they can soak up free radicals. But according to chemist Romanowski, they’re not present in lotions in a quantity that will be at all helpful to you.
Since fragrance can be irritating, and what makes a good fragrance is largely personal, it’s generally a good idea to avoid sunscreens with it. That said, the chemicals themselves in sunscreens still have a scent, so you are not going to find a sunscreen that smells like absolutely nothing.
Some sunscreens claim to be water resistant, but no sunscreen is water- or sweat-proof. As such, you should never count on sunscreen to stick on your skin after swimming or working out, and you should definitely be reapplying after you do either of those things. Per FDA regulations, sunscreen can be labeled as water resistant for only 80 minutes, at which point, per our hourly application recommendation, you should have reapplied anyway.
Sometimes the fancier, more expensive stuff is compelling because it comes in attractive, compact bottles that are easier to carry in a purse or put atop a dresser. We did not factor the bottle volume or shape into our selections, because it’s easy to transfer something like sunscreen to an inexpensive bottle, at a one-time cost. Try our pick for toiletry bottles, the Nalgene Travel Kit.
If you have sensitive skin, there’s no need to look for formulas marketed as “non-irritating.” Our cosmetic chemist source told us, “Every lotion out there has the potential to be irritating to somebody.” In fact, if you have a skin reaction, it’s probably not the sunscreen itself but additives like fragrance or methylisothiazolinone, a preservative.2 We tried to stay away from those as much as possible in testing and went with fragrance-free picks.
Across the pond, the European Commission has approved many more sunscreen filters that can serve as alternatives. The EU considers sunscreen a cosmetic product, which makes the approval process faster; here, sunscreen is classified as an over-the-counter drug. The very practical reason we didn’t consider imported offerings is because they’re illegal to buy online here. But we also don’t think you need an alternative to oxybenzone-based sunscreens, which is why many people have sought out European sunscreens and written pieces endorsing them. We considered and rejected all the arguments against chemical sunscreens available in the US, and we don’t see a need to break the law to seek alternatives. “We have effective sunscreen ingredients to choose from already,” Quale said.
We debated including sprays because, though their format doesn’t suggest it, they need to be rubbed in, which can result in patchy application (especially in windy, outdoor conditions), and you can’t measure how much you’ve applied. Every single expert we asked said you can’t just spray your own back and be good to go. Treadwell said they’re easy to inhale, which is not advisable. But the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use, and if you find sprays to be more convenient—even when you’re using them properly—you might do a better job of reapplying. Sprays tend to feel slicker when they are first applied (think bacon grease) and less tacky than lotions, a texture you may prefer; and they tend to smell less.
We skipped sticks, as they don’t provide great coverage, and foams as they’re an uncommon format and it can be hard to tell how much to apply.
We considered a dozen or so lists of best sunscreens—from Good Housekeeping, Cosmo, O Magazine, and more—and then tossed out most of their wisdom for featuring super-expensive sunscreens, or selections rooted in a fear of chemical sunscreens. Still, we selected a few favorites from these for testing.
After talking to our many experts and reading papers for half a dozen-ish hours, we felt confident that we could choose either a physical or chemical sunscreen.
We tried to select sunscreens that have been tested by Consumer Reports for SPF and UVA protection (most of their results sit behind a paywall), though sometimes we trusted the bottle. The FDA regulates the protection claims that manufacturers make about their sunscreens, but per CR’s results, this doesn’t work perfectly.
However, we found a major factor that we needed to take into account: ease and frequency of application.
You are almost certainly not using enough sunscreen. One study shows that people typically use a quarter to one-half as much sunscreen as they need to per application to meet the advertised SPF.
To get the SPF listed on the bottle, you need to put 2 mg/cm2 on your skin. That means you need roughly one shot glass, or 1 ounce, for your mostly naked body (which is also the AAD’s recommendation for how much to apply). Spray sunscreens are trickier, as it’s hard to tell how much ends up on your skin, but if you’re headed to the beach in a bikini, we’ve found that spraying close to your body (not the 4 to 6 inches that most bottles recommend) for roughly two minutes in a windless (but well-ventilated) area should do the trick (see How much spray sunscreen should you use? to read about how we figured this out). But that’s just your first application! The AAD suggests reapplying every two hours.
Instead of doing gymnastics with scales and shot glasses, a paper titled Application of sunscreen—theory and reality recommends frequent application as a strategy: Apply your sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside, and then again once an hour, plus every time after you sweat a lot or go in the water. No sunscreen is totally waterproof, and while our pick is water-resistant, it’s better to reapply with another ounce of your sunscreen than play the odds of whether your application was perfect or thorough enough to last through sweating or swimming.
Because frequency of application is so crucial to protection, cost per ounce of sunscreen matters: If you are using sunscreen properly, and also not living your life as a mole person, you will be buying a fair amount of sunscreen. From a health perspective, the differences between inexpensive and expensive sunscreens are relatively minor. The cosmetic chemist Romanowski compared sunscreens to aspirin: You can get generic, or Bayer, or whatever, but they are all more or less the same thing. Treadwell, our pediatric dermatologist, echoed the sentiment: “I tell parents that they can buy the generic brands in the store. The expense [of fancy sunscreen] does not make it better.” If you find yourself en route to the beach and in immediate need of a physical sunscreen, go into any drugstore and check out the store-brand physical offerings. They’re not all the same feel-wise, but they do tend to be a solid bet cost-wise.
A panel of nine people (including me) tried on the sunscreens in swatches on our arms in a blind test in our office, with the bottles covered in duct tape to avoid the influence of brand names and marketing claims. We looked at the smell, texture, and feel of each, and assessed whether rubbing it in was a pain, either by taking too long or not being spreadable enough.
Three of us each took two top physical and chemical products home and slathered most of our bodies with them to get a better idea of how they actually felt and smelled in larger quantities, and over longer periods of time.
We also sent some of our favorite sunscreens with groups of kids and adults going to beaches in Georgia and Los Angeles to get feedback on how sunscreens stood up to wind and ocean waves.
(Additionally, as a side note, I became obsessive about covering different parts of my body in different sunscreens that we had picked while writing this guide.)
I incorporated sunscreens of various smells and consistencies into my daily makeup routine: The sunscreen that works best for everyone should also be able to work without interfering with a moderate barrage of cosmetics and perfume. All sunscreens that I tried did just fine under layers of tinted moisturizer, blush, and assorted glittery stuff. Scented ones left me, well, kind of scented, which was a minus. On a daily basis, I want to smell like fancy hotel lotion or something by Calvin Klein. But not my sunscreen.
We found that the chemical sunscreens we tested all smelled at least a little sunscreen-y if they didn’t have some other fragrance added. The physical and combination ones all smelled slightly like glue. But these smells are all fairly subtle and can be hard to pick up unless you are standing in the sunscreen aisle and doing a careful comparison. We’ve noted in The competition section which sunscreens have a prohibitively strong smell.
We’ve observed an uptick recently in sunscreens that market themselves as “dry”; we tried out several of them. While some of these sunscreens feel a bit more matte in careful, side-by-side testing compared with sunscreens not labeled “dry,” our panelists and field testers didn’t note a difference in texture in blind or un-blind tests. Sunscreens are, fundamentally, kind of greasy.
One of the major pitfalls of spray sunscreen is that it’s hard tell how much spray sunscreen ends up on your skin. Even sunscreen testing labs don’t actually use the spray mechanisms on bottles when they are testing sunscreen. “Determining the exact amount of spray product applied to a test site area is virtually impossible,” Sherriel Wallace, the clinical director at Florida Suncare Testing told us. Instead, they get samples of spray sunscreen in liquid form and deposit it onto testers’ skin using a syringe. Dermatologists sometimes recommend applying spray with the nozzle directly against your skin so it comes out as a liquid, which seems to largely defeat the purpose of using a spray; however, if you prefer the feel of it and don’t mind the greater cost, it’s not a totally invalid option.
I set out to figure out how much spray sunscreen I’d need to apply to get full coverage when using a spray normally. Spray sunscreens are tested for their SPF based on weight, 2 mg/cm2, according to Wallace and the FDA. Humans—generously—have 2 square meters of skin, which works out to just under an ounce and a half by weight if you’re covering your entire naked body. (Note that the one-ounce measure for lotion sunscreens is volume—the amount you’d put in a glass—not weight).
My editor and I devised a contraption to collect all of the liquid coming out of a spray bottle. I placed a sheet of plastic wrap over a plastic bottle, secured it with a rubber band, and poked a hole to place a spray bottle in the top. I did several tests, timing how long I was spraying and then measuring the resulting liquid by volume and weight. I found that spraying a fresh bottle of sunscreen for a minute yields roughly 0.8 ounce by weight, meaning a person would need to spray for about two minutes to cover an entire body, if little to no sunscreen is lost to the air.
To find out how much sunscreen escapes the bottle but doesn’t end up on your skin, I did a couple of tests. I sprayed sunscreen for 30 seconds on a piece of tinfoil set on a scale, and measured how much the weight changed. I did this both with still air and then with a fan going at the equivalent of a light breeze at the beach.
But if you’re careful about applying spray sunscreen in a windless area, you can get full coverage on your near-naked body if you spray for about two minutes, close to your body, and rub it in with your hands, which you are supposed to do anyway, according to all bottle instructions. Be wary, too, of bottles that are nearing empty and not spraying continuously. (Note that our tests were unscientific, and this is a fairly rough estimate, but it gives us at least a workable rule of thumb that leaves us safely covered in the sun.)
You can also go by feel: Enough spray sunscreen for adequate protection will feel quite greasy, but not impossible to rub in. Before reporting this guide, I thought spray sunscreen was a subtle, almost magical, alternative to lotions. Not so. Though it is slicker and thinner than lotion, which you may find overall more comfortable, spray sunscreen isn’t a fundamentally different substance.
Coppertone Ultraguard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70 chemical sunscreen is the best sunscreen for the most people. According to Consumer Reports’s 2017 rankings and tests, it has an SPF that’s well above what dermatologists recommend, while still being affordable. It has no added fragrances. Though we could detect a slight sunscreen scent when we first applied it, after it’s been rubbed in, “it doesn’t really smell like anything,” said Wirecutter social media editor Sasha VanHoven, who has been using Coppertone Ultraguard consistently for two years. Its texture made it among the easiest to apply of the sunscreens we tested. Plus, it comes in the only format that we can recommend confidently (lotion!) and hits all of the AAD requirements. It didn’t turn white when we wore it running, as some sunscreens do.
Coppertone Ultraguard SPF 70 is rated as being water resistant for 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time that a sunscreen can claim to be water resistant, making it among the most water resistant of all the sunscreens we considered. While you should apply when you get out of the water or stop exercising, you will have as much protection as a sunscreen can afford you until then. Not everyone swims or exercises in their sunscreen, but most people do sweat, so maximum water resistance is an important factor even in general-purpose use.
One Amazon reviewer says: “It didn’t feel overly greasy, and it rubbed in fine, no white residue … it does the job it’s intended to do.” We agree.
Consumer Reports also gave it high marks (here, subscription needed): “Excellent in overall performance. A recommended sunscreen that is Excellent for UVA and UVB protection. Barely noticeable aroma.” In Consumer Reports’s lab tests, Coppertone Ultraguard nearly met the (very high) SPF rating on the bottle, so we feel confident in telling you this sunscreen will give you great protection in the sun, in addition to offering the best texture and scent experience you can expect from a sunscreen.
There’s not too much to say about something that quietly does its job and gets out of the way.
The active ingredients are: avobenzone (3 percent), homosalate (15 percent), octisalate (5 percent), octocrylene (10 percent), and oxybenzone (6 percent).
Like most chemical sunscreens, Coppertone Ultraguard contains avobenzone, which can stain white and light-colored clothing yellow, especially if you live in an area with hard water. And like all chemical sunscreens without an added fragrance, it also has a slight sunscreen smell (though it’s the most subdued out of everything we tested).
Coppertone Ultraguard isn’t the very cheapest sunscreen on the market. But out of the lotions that Consumer Reports confirmed have a high enough SPF, it’s one of the least expensive that smells nice and is widely available.
If you prefer a sunscreen that has a slightly sweet, flowery scent, or our top pick is sold out, try Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50. It goes on a little easier than our top pick and comes in the same easy-to-hold bottle. It costs about the same amount per ounce as our top pick.
Of all the sunscreens we tested, it’s among the easier ones to rub in. Others agree. “I love the fact that it doesn’t go on heavy and remain pasty looking,” notes one review on Amazon. “It actually seems to absorb into the skin so it’s [sic] feels like a moisturizer as well as sunscreen.”
The scent isn’t for everyone. Coppertone Water Babies smells a little perfume-y when it first goes on. Many of our panelists were put off by sunscreens that smelled like anything other than sunscreen, though depending on your personal tastes, it could be a bonus.
The active ingredients are: avobenzone (3 percent), homosalate (13 percent), octisalate (5 percent), octocrylene (7 percent), and oxybenzone (4 percent). Consumer Reports gives it high marks, noting that the SPF its editors found in testing closely matches the SPF on the label.
We think most people will do well with our pick, but if you would rather have a physical sunscreen for its lack of “sunscreen” scent, prefer a stickier texture, and don’t mind having a harder time rubbing your sunscreen in, we recommend CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50. Of the five physical and combination sunscreens we tested, CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion was one of those that went on the easiest. Others in the category were harder to rub in and unpleasantly scented (usually like glue), and some were far more expensive.
If you are sensitive to the faint sunscreen smell of avobenzone formulas, a combination sunscreen like CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion (or a physical sunscreen) is the way to go. Our self-proclaimed fragrance-hating tester preferred sunscreens that were zinc-based, like this one. In the fragrance-free variety, physical sunscreens smell sort of like glue, not like the scent of traditional sunscreen, and they smell less strong overall than the chemical sunscreens. So, take your scent pick.
The CVS formula’s active ingredients are octocrylene (4.0 percent) and zinc oxide (5.0 percent). It goes on much clearer than sunscreens with a comparable amount of zinc.
I found the CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion way too much of a pain to rub in compared with the top chemical sunscreens. However, pretty much any combo or physical sunscreen with a significant SPF is going to feel thicker than a chemical one. Some of our testers didn’t have trouble with the absorption of these sunscreens, or they found that the texture wasn’t a big enough deterrent to sway them toward a chemical pick (perceived absorption rates are relative). But out of all the zinc-based sunscreens we tested, this one proved to be a favorite, even beating out the expensive EltaMD combination physical/chemical formula with some of our testers.
The biggest caveat with this sunscreen is how expensive it is—it’s about twice as much as our top pick currently. But if you dislike the smell of traditional sunscreens, this is a great option for daily use, when you won’t have to slather on as much as you would on a beach day.
There’s no additional independent testing that confirms the effective SPF of CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion. Since no sunscreen with zinc did well in Consumer Reports’s testing, we can only recommend any mineral sunscreens with caution, and an extra reminder to reapply frequently.
If you know you’re more likely to apply (and reapply) a spray, Banana Boat UltraMist Sport Performance Sunscreen SPF 100 is the easiest to apply liberally of the nine spray sunscreens we tested. While most sprays feel very similar, some testers reported liking the feel of the UltraMist best for being less greasy than others. It’s also less expensive than the competition, making it easier on your wallet to apply as much as you need to.
Testers also liked that the UltraMist smells like sunscreen (as opposed to bug spray, or body spray).
The downside of sprays is that they are quite a bit more expensive than lotions. If you are using a bottle of spray correctly, you would likely kill a whole bottle in a single beach day just to cover one person. However, this should always be weighed against what you are most likely to use properly and apply frequently; if sprays do it for you, they may be worth the extra cost.
The active ingredients are avobenzone (3 percent), homosalate (10 percent), octisalate (10 percent), octocrylene (10 percent), and oxybenzone (6 percent).
If you’d prefer a spray sunscreen that smells more sweet than sunscreen-y, or want a drier-feeling spray, try the Neutrogena Beach Defense Water + Sun Protection Spray SPF 70. It’s pricier than the Banana Boat UltraMist, and the spray is more aerated and less direct. Some testers prefered the feel of the Beach Defense over that of the UltraMist, saying that it felt drier. “It took more [effort] to rub it in, but it feels less greasy on my skin,” said one tester who pitted it against the UltraMist on the beach in Los Angeles.
You’ll either like the smell, or you’ll hate it. While some appreciated that it doesn’t smell like traditional sunscreen, one tester described it as “a sickly sweet smell.”
We like that there are grooves on the top of the bottle, though it’s not quite as comfortable to grip as the UltraMist. (Though they’re not as easy to grip as the grooves on the Banana Boat bottle).
If you prefer to buy sunscreen online, the Beach Defense may be harder to find.
The active ingredients are: avobenzone (3 percent), homosalate (8 percent), octisalate (4 percent), octocrylene (2 percent), and oxybenzone (5 percent).
Don’t count on your foundation, powder, bronzer, or other makeup to fully protect you. Sun-protective makeup might not be good enough for your daily routine, depending on what you are using and how much time you spend outside. Many cosmetics that advertise an SPF do not protect against UVA rays. They’re not falsely advertising, but it’s easy for you, the customer, to miss that they don’t have the important “broad spectrum” label. And if they do, they may not have a high enough SPF to meet AAD recommendations.
We considered including a face sunscreen pick but didn’t. There’s no reason why a “body” sunscreen can’t work on your face, and using a more expensive face sunscreen on your body isn’t the greatest idea (cost!). According to Romanowski, our cosmetic chemist, face sunscreens are often simply body sunscreens repackaged. People’s faces are also wildly different in the way they react to different materials; what is too greasy for one person may be fine for another. We hope to address this separate topic in a future guide. On that note, there’s one caveat to using our pick on your face: Water-resistant formulas do have more oil; that’s what makes them water resistant, Romanowski said. “Face” sunscreens tend to be formulas with less oil. If you are acne prone, and putting oil on your face is a concern, look into a separate face sunscreen. (When using our pick, a water-resistant formula, I did not notice an uptick in pimples. Your mileage may vary.) One positive thing you’ll find in hitting the “face” portion of the aisle: more fragrance-free options.
Though I’ll keep buying a different formula for my face (like the CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion, which is a less-smelly combination formula), I wouldn’t hesitate to use our top pick on my face for a beach day. If you’re shopping for a dedicated face sunscreen, make sure it’s broad-spectrum and SPF 30 or higher.
The complaint that one particular sunscreen or another causes yellow stains is a common one. But nearly every chemical sunscreen on the market has the potential to cause staining, especially if you live in an area with hard water. A reaction between avobenzone and iron creates the stain, which is actually rust.
If you have trouble with sunscreen stains, consider wearing darker clothing to the beach, or switching to a mineral-based sunscreen. If you want to give up neither your white bikini nor your easy-to-apply sunscreen, professional cleaning person Jolie Kerr recommends a remover that can handle them, Stain Devils #9 Rust and Perspiration. Kerr also suggests going with a lotion sunscreen—it’s easier to avoid getting it on your clothing during application.
A recent study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found through in vitro tests (done in labs, not in the natural environment) that one of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreen, oxybenzone, can be damaging to coral reefs. This finding echoes a 2008 study, which said oxybenzone may cause coral bleaching.
The 2015 study goes on to say that the concentration of oxybenzone in water on beaches where people swim can remain significantly high even dozens of meters from the coast, far enough to reach some coral reefs. The authors also caution that oxybenzone could reach reefs through wastewater systems that vacate off coasts nearby. This information is alarming because coral reefs are a little-understood feature of the ocean that appear sensitive to many elements of human influence, and they are dying quickly in some parts of the world.
We stand by our recommendation that the best way to avoid sun damage, the core goal of sunscreen, is to stay out of the sun, or to stay covered up while outside. This is the best method with the least impact on your surrounding ecosystem. If you plan to travel or live near coastal reefs and wear sunscreen, you may affect your environment less by using a physical sunscreen. (Note that a second study unearthed by our science editor, Leigh Krietsch Boerner, suggests that one of the active ingredients in many physical sunscreens, titanium dioxide, may also affect the ecosystem, but those correlations are less direct than the 2015 oxybenzone study and have not been replicated.)
Some sunscreens are marketed specifically as “reef-safe,” an unregulated term. Some Central American resorts mandate that customers purchase special biodegradable sunscreen based on the idea that regular sunscreen is damaging to coral reefs. A piece from Vice points out that this mandate was previously based on the coral-bleaching study from 2008 linked above.
We do not have a pick for biodegradable sunscreen, and resorts will often sell you whatever they feel is compliant. But Vice echoes our stance: If you’re really worried about coral, the better environmental move is not to encourage resort development in the area near coral reefs by visiting them.
We note that these effects have not been studied in the open ocean, once these compounds have had a chance to dilute. Therefore, there is somewhat less cause for alarm about using sunscreens far away from coral reefs. The good news is that another study from 2010 shows that, with protection, damaged coral reefs can rebound.
All the sunscreens we tested met our basic safety requirements, so if you find yourself standing in an aisle at a drugstore, you can reach for any of these. (Not all have been independently tested to ensure that the SPF matches the label.) Some of the ones we tested we wouldn’t buy at all—we’ve noted those below.
No-Ad Sport SPF 50: This sunscreen is less expensive than the competition, has no added fragrance, and is easy to rub in—features that made it our previous top pick. Though it scored well in Consumer Reports’s previous tests, in its 2017 sunscreen guide its editors found that the tested SPF is below 30, which does not meet our requirements. No-Ad told us that its own tests found that the SPF of the formula does match the bottle. “Our SPF test data does not support Consumer Reports’s testing results,” said a spokesperson. We still recommend going with a sunscreen that’s been independently tested.
Pure Sun Defense (chemical, lotion): The Pure Sun Defense formula feels the same as that of our top pick, but it’s available exclusively at Target and Walmart, which is a drawback if those stores are not convenient for you; if they are, this sunscreen is a good alternative to our pick. Pure Sun Defense comes only in cartoon-character tubes of 8 fluid ounces, so it fits well in a purse or bag and is easier to squeeze.
CVS Baby Sun Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50 (chemical-physical combination, lotion): All of our testers were pretty neutral on this one. One tester’s succinct comments summed up all of our feelings: “Smell isn’t offensive. It’s a little sticky. Blends into the skin decently.”
Block Up! Sport Sunscreen SPF 50 (chemical, lotion): Also a fine choice. Rubbed in easily, but not as easily as the better sunscreens.
Coppertone Water Babies Pure and Simple (combination, lotion): This one was thick and took a bit to absorb—but not a prohibitively long time. Some of our testers said this is what they use at home. There’s no avobenzone in this one, so if you’re concerned about stains it’s a good choice.
No-Ad Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen Lotion (chemical, lotion): This one absorbs well and is easy to rub in. It has an added fragrance that smells kind of sweet.
No-Ad Sunscreen Lotion SPF 45 (chemical, lotion): A slightly thicker version of the SPF 30 version. Also has a fragrance.
No-Ad Kids SPF 50 (chemical, lotion): This version of No-Ad has the same ingredients as the No-Ad Sport SPF 50, but it smells a little sweet.
Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30: We liked that this sunscreen has a thin consistency and rubs in easily, and in previous years, it’s been our runner-up pick. However, there’s no independent testing that confirms that the SPF matches the label, and even a slight variation would mean it’s less than the desired SPF 30.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 45 (chemical, lotion): This container is small enough to toss in a purse, but the lotion feeds out of the tube at a pretty slow rate. Despite the marketing, the feel when it dries is not significantly drier than other sunscreens. As one tester said of the Neutrogena sunscreen: “It rubs in nicely, but I don’t really like the smell. I’ve used this one a lot, and the smell has actually never bothered me. But after smelling all of the others, the scent on this seemed too strong.”
Goddess Garden Organics Kids SPF 30 (physical, spray): This spray isn’t an aerosol; rather, it’s a lotion that squirts out in little blobs, making it much easier to apply accurately and evenly than a traditional spray sunscreen. If you are sensitive to oxybenzone or concerned about stains but still want a spray, this is a good choice. However, our testers reported that it was hard to rub in. If you don’t spray close enough to your body, it’s easy to end up with blobs of sunscreen all over your belongings; during testing, we accidentally splattered sunscreen across a glass conference room door.
Babyganics Mineral-Based Baby Sunscreen Spray (physical, spray): Another non-aerosol spray, which testers also reported was hard to rub in. Once it was on, it felt a little sticky.
Neutrogena CoolDry Sport SPF 70 (chemical, lotion): This one smelled a little like men’s deodorant, a smell that most of our testers disliked.
Banana Boat SunComfort (chemical, lotion): Testers were put off by the sweet smell of this sunscreen. One beach tester reported that—true to a claim on the bottle—sand seemed to stick to them less than with other sunscreens, though others said they didn’t notice a difference.
Banana Boat Dry Balance (chemical, lotion): Most testers disliked the sweet smell of this lotion.
Pure Sun Defense Sunscreen Spray (chemical, spray): We had trouble with the cap on this one; it could be tricky to get it to click shut.
Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Sunscreen Spray (chemical, spray): This bottle is smaller than the competition, meaning you’ll have to carry more with you for a beach day.
And here are the ones we wouldn’t buy:
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk (chemical, lotion): This product topped Consumer Reports’s list of sunscreens that the testing house evaluated in 2016, as it met the SPF claims on its bottle and had only a faint “beach ball” scent. This sunscreen, however, tends to cost at least 10 times as much per ounce as our pick, which means each hour in the sun would cost you a few dollars. If you think cost might discourage you from using a sunscreen liberally and frequently, choosing a more price-conscious sunscreen is a better move.
Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration (chemical, lotion): We eliminated this one early on in testing due to fragile packaging. I dropped this sunscreen on the floor and the pump broke, making it difficult to use.
Alba Botanica Very Emollient, Fragrance Free Physical Sunscreen SPF 30 (physical, lotion): We chose this one for testing because of the cost, because it was fragrance-free, and because it’s listed as natural (read: physical, and marketed toward the Whole Foods set). New York Magazine’s The Cut said that the fragrant version of this could be “your gateway to a more natural lifestyle. Maybe.” Most of our testers did not like it. After patch testing, one of our guinea pigs reported, “I like that it’s almost odorless, but I don’t like how sticky this is.” She concluded, “I don’t think I’d wear it.”
And when editor Casey Johnston took it home and tried using it on her whole body, she found that the larger application area really brought out its not-great qualities. “It really has a gluey smell I don’t like, and it’s pretty thick and hard to spread,” she reported. “Not that I’d never use it in a pinch, but if I’d bought it I would not buy it again.”
Other physical picks are better. The only difference is that they have parabens, which as we noted above is not a downside, and are not marketed as “natural.” Poison ivy is natural. Skip this one no matter what.
EltaMD Skincare UV Sport Broad-Spectrum (chemical/physical combination, lotion): An earlier version of our beach guide recommended this sunscreen. In doing our extensive research for this guide, we felt it was probably too expensive, but we wanted to give it a fair shot.
Testers liked this one a lot—it uses 9 percent micronized zinc oxide, which cuts down significantly on white residue. Though it goes on slightly sticky in patch tests on their arms, testers reported that it was easy to rub in. When I tried covering my limbs in it, I got tired before it was all the way rubbed in, though it ended up going from pale to glistening-greasy-clear on its own.
The application nozzle seems nice, but again there was trouble when I had to pump so many times that the little pump started wheezing. Thankfully, it’s also available in a more convenient tube format. Given that some of our testers picked the less expensive Walgreens formula in swatch testing over this, there’s no reason you should be paying so much money for this one.
Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection SPF 50 (chemical, lotion): Consumer Reports gave this one high marks. We did not like the smell, and we would not buy it. The smell is an intense sunscreen odor, so unless you are shopping for sunscreen with the express purpose of inducing a scent memory of the beach, you should avoid this one.
Honest Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 (physical, lotion): We did not test or consider this sunscreen while researching our guide, but it has made headlines due to customer complaints that it is not protecting skin from sunburns. We should note that at roughly $4.50 per ounce as of this writing, this is a very expensive sunscreen, which might discourage the frequent and liberal application needed for adequate protection. This formula’s only active ingredient is a 9.3 percent concentration of zinc oxide, which is low for a zinc-only sunscreen (typically those products have concentrations around 20 percent, as NBC Chicago reported). Honest sunscreen markets itself using meaningless, undefined terms like “safe” and “nontoxic” and “hypoallergenic.” For these reasons, we do not recommend Honest’s product.
We're gonna have to have a whistle-off!