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This article was featured in the July 2009 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

Best sunscreens for your summer

Last reviewed: July 2009
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This article is the archived version of a report that appeared in July 2009 Consumer Reports magazine.

Short of avoiding the sun altogether (what fun is that?), careful and consistent use of sunscreen remains a key way to protect your skin against the sun's rays. But choose carefully: Our latest tests showed variation in how well 10 products guard against ultraviolet radiation.

At an outside lab, we assessed protection against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation. (Many products now claim protection against both, though only UVB rays are accounted for in the sun-protection factor.) We also checked how well sunscreens lasted on a panel of volunteers who soaked in a tub of water for at least 40 minutes.

Most sunscreens protected well, and we found three CR Best Buys. But one product, Banana Boat Kids Tear Free SPF 50, was just fair in UVA protection. It also took an especially long time to rub in and left a sticky, white residue.

When it came to UVB protection, all products met or exceeded their SPF claim except one—Neutrogena's Ultra Sheer Dry Touch SPF 70, the priciest sunscreen we tested. Because it came within 10 percent of its claim and had such a high SPF to begin with, it's still OK to use.

All sunscreens except Aveeno's Continuous Protection Spray SPF 45 lost some UVB protection after water immersion, but none lost more than 10 percent.

Our best performers included both lotions and sprays. But be aware that applying sprays properly can be tricky, especially if it's windy. The target hit by Target Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30 (now called Up & Up) seemed especially wide, so some spray could hit the air instead of your skin.

When you buy

  • Choose a sunscreen labeled very water resistant or waterproof and with an SPF of at least 30, which is plenty for most people. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans for a new labeling rule that would stop SPF numbers at 50. Sunscreens that could prove more protection could be labeled 50+.
  • Look to the Ratings for excellent or very good choices. High-rated products from our 2007 tests that are still being sold include Blue Lizard Regular Australian SPF 30+, Mustella Bébé/Enfant High Protection SPF 50, Lancôme Paris Sôleil Ultra Expert Sun Care for Sensitive Skin SPF 50, and Fallene Cotz SPF 58.
  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun to allow for absorption. Reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating heavily.
  • Watch your clothes. All of the products stained when applied directly to various fabrics and left to sit for a day. Only about half the labels warned about staining.
  • Discard sunscreen that is more than two years old because it might have lost its potency. If it has no expiration date when you buy it, mark one yourself with a permanent marker.
  • Don't buy by brand alone. Past tests have shown that different formulas or SPFs within the same brand may not rate the same.
  • Don't rely on sunscreen alone to protect you from skin cancer. Wear tightly woven clothing and a hat, limit sun time, and seek shade during the hottest hours of the day.