4 sunscreen sprays outshine the rest

Last reviewed: July 2010
Bottles of sunscreen

Sunscreens that guard against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation can help prevent sunburn, wrinkles, and certain skin cancers. Our tests of 12 products found four that protect a shade better than the rest.

At an outside lab, we assessed how well each product blocked UVA and UVB rays and how well their claimed sun protection factor, or SPF—a measure of UVB protection—lasted on volunteers who soaked in water for 40 or 80 minutes. (Badger claims 40 minutes of water resistance; most others claim 80.) There's no protection factor for UVA radiation on labels, though the Food and Drug Administration has proposed a system of one to four stars.

The top four sunscreens provided Very Good UVA protection and Excellent UVB protection, and met their SPF claim even after treated skin was in water for 80 minutes. Each had a slight or moderately intense floral or citrus scent and left little residue on skin. Up & Up is a CR Best Buy, but all four cost far less than the La Roche-Posay, a nervy $18.82 per ounce.

The active ingredient in Burt's Bees, titanium dioxide, doesn't absorb the entire UVA spectrum as effectively as alternatives like avobenzone. Avon doesn't claim to protect against UVA rays, but it doubles as an insect repellent (see Sunscreen-repellent mix).

Bottom line. Buy sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 (plenty for most people) that claims to be water resistant. Also:

  • For full-body protection, adults should apply 2 to 3 tablespoons of lotion 15 to 30 minutes before going out. Reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating. Applying sprays can be tricky if it's windy.
  • Don't spray or rub sunscreen on clothes. Most of the products stained fabrics when applied directly and left for a day.
  • Wear tightly woven clothing and a hat, limit your sun time, and seek shade during the hottest hours of the day.