Sunscreen Buying Guide
The ABCs of SPF

Our tests of over 60 sunscreen lotions, sprays, sticks, and lip balms show that you can't always rely on the sun protection factor (SPF) number, a measure of protection from ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which is the chief cause of sunburn and a contributor to skin cancer. We also tested for protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which tan and age skin, and also trigger skin cancer. We found more than a dozen sunscreens that did well enough against both UVA and UVB to recommend.

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How We Tested

The sun protection factor (SPF) is a relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays. Usually, the number is explained as the amount of time it takes an individual's skin to burn when it's covered in sunscreen compared to when it's not. For example, assuming you apply—and reapply—the sunscreen correctly, if you'd normally burn after 20 minutes in the sun, an SPF 30 protects for about 10 hours. But intensity and wavelength distribution UVB rays vary throughout the day and by location.

And that calculation does not apply to UVA rays. That's why you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides protection against both types of UV rays. However, no sunscreen blocks 100 percent of UVA or UVB rays. The breakdown: SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, SPF 50 blocks 98 percent, and SPF 100 blocks 99 percent.

The sunscreens we test must have a listed SPF of at least 30 and be water resistant (for 40 or 80 minutes, whatever is listed on the sunscreen packaging).

Alas, there are no trips to Tahiti for our sunscreen panelists—they go to a lab. To check for UVB protection, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to six places on our panelists' backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, each of those areas is exposed to six intensities of UVB light from a sun simulator for a set time. About a day later, the six spots are examined for redness. The resulting UVB protection ratings reflect each product's actual effectiveness after water immersion and are based on an average of our results for each sunscreen.

The UVA test we use allows us to differentiate the degree of UVA protection among sunscreens. To test for UVA, we smear sunscreen onto plastic plates and pass UV light through and measure the amount of UVA and UVB rays that are absorbed. That information is then used to calculate our UVA score.

Finally, we have our trained sensory panel evaluate the scent and skin feel of the products.

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What We Found

Of the 62 lotions, sprays, sticks, and lip balms in our ratings this year, 23 tested at less than half their labeled SPF number. That doesn't mean the products aren't protective at all, but you may not be getting the degree of protection you think you are.

These results aren't a fluke. We have seen a similar pattern in the past five years of our sunscreen testing. Of all the sunscreens we've tested over that stretch of time, about half tested below the SPF number printed on the label. 

In our tests over the years, so-called "natural" or mineral sunscreens—those that contain only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both as active ingredients—have tended to perform less well than those that have chemical active ingredients, such as avobenzone. None of the mineral sunscreens in our tests this year did well enough to make our list of recommendations.

The sensory aspects of sunscreen are important to many people. You're less likely to use one if you don't like its scent or feel. Our sensory testing found many that did not feel heavy or sticky on skin, and in many cases these were also high-performing products. Sunscreens come in a variety of fragrances. In addition to the classic beachy scent, the ones in our tests had tropical, floral, baby powder, citrus, and woodsy/outdoorsy notes. We also found that no fragrance doesn't always mean no odor. Many fragrance-free sunscreens had a slight amount of plastic smell (think beach ball). 

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What's in Sunscreen

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and the benefits of sunscreens outweigh potential risks from their ingredients. That said, animal studies have raised some concerns about what's inside these sunscreens.

Some chemical UV filters, such as octinoxate and oxybenzone, have been found to cause hormonal changes in animals; however, short-term research in people did not show any adverse effect. And one large animal study found that the inactive ingredient retinyl palmitate, one of a group of chemical compounds related to vitamin A called retinoids, may become carcinogenic when exposed to light. But that hasn’t been studied in people. Taking pills that contain a different type of retinoid for skin conditions such as acne has been linked to birth defects. As a precaution, pregnant women may want to choose a sunscreen without the ingredient retinol palmitate or retinyl palmitate. 

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Best Cheap Sunscreens

Watch our video below for budget-friendly sunscreen recommendations.

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Sun Protection

Research shows that people who rely on sunscreens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves. Try to avoid the sun or stay in the shade when the sun is the strongest (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and dress right for the occasion. Wear a hat and clothing that's made from tightly woven fabric. Hold clothing up to the light; if you can see through it, the UV rays can get through, too.

When Using Sunscreen

Shake it. The directions may not tell you to do this, but it’s a good idea because it helps distribute the active ingredients throughout the sunscreen.

Use enough. Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. For lotions, a good rule of thumb is a teaspoon per body part or area: 1 teaspoon for your face, head, and neck; 1 for each arm; 1 for each leg; 1 for your chest and abdomen; and 1 for your back and the back of your neck. For sprays, apply as much as can be rubbed in, then repeat. Regardless of which kind you use, reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.

Use spray sunscreens carefully. The FDA has said it is exploring the risks of inhaling spray sunscreens. Until we know more, our experts say to avoid using sprays on children, and do not spray them directly on your face. Instead, spray sunscreen onto your hands then apply it to your face. If you do use a spray on a child, spray the sunscreen into your hands and rub it onto the child's skin. Sprays are flammable, so let them dry before going near an open flame.

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Bottom Line

Based on our findings, it's especially important to check our ratings for a sunscreen that did well. If you can't find one of those, the results of our tests over the years indicate that choosing a chemical sunscreen with an SPF of 40 or higher will give you a better chance of getting at least an SPF 30. Using any sunscreen is better than using none, but it's just one part of a smart sun protection strategy. 

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