Find the Best Sunscreen for Your Skin Tone

A group of CR staffers evaluated products for feel, scent, and whether they left a white cast

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A family smiling and taking a selfie under a beach umbrella on the beach. Photo: Uwe Krejci/Getty Images

When you choose a sunscreen, you obviously want it to be protective but you don’t want it to be sticky, stinky, or make you look pasty. “A sunscreen’s scent and feel, and the way it looks on the skin is a big factor in whether someone is motivated to use it,” says Joan Muratore, who oversees Consumer Reports’ sunscreen sensory testing.

In a survey by the market research firm Mintel, 26 percent of sunscreen users said that a “clear” formula—one that doesn’t leave a white cast on skin—was a factor in their last purchase of a sunscreen; 11 percent said appealing fragrance. And having sunscreen options that are right for their skin is key for many consumers. In the Mintel survey, 28 percent of Asians, 26 percent of Black people, 22 percent of white people, and 17 percent of Hispanics said they wished there were more products made specifically for their skin type.

Consumer Reports’ trained sensory panelists evaluate the scent, feel, and appearance of every sunscreen in our ratings. But we also wanted to see how average consumers viewed these aspects of sunscreens. So CR’s consumer experience experts recruited a group of 20 CR staffers with a variety of skin tones to try out seven sunscreens from our ratings—sprays and lotions, both chemical and mineral formulas—and give us their feedback.

We found some clunkers and some that pleased a majority of our group. The most surprising finding was that regardless of skin tone, the evaluations of the sunscreens’ appearance were consistent. The ones that vanished into skin did so for a majority of the participants, and those that left a white cast did so on mostly everyone.

The volunteers, all of whom use sunscreen at least some of the time, self-identified their skin tone on the Fitzpatrick Scale, a tool that dermatologists and other skin experts use to classify skin type based on its response to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. The six types range from type 1 (pale, always burns) to type 6 (dark brown/black, never burns). Our volunteer group included every skin type.

More on Sun Protection

The seven sunscreens the participants looked at represent a cross section of chemical and mineral products in our ratings at various prices, some of which are recommended by CR. The volunteers evaluated five lotions and two sprays blind—that is, the products were wrapped so that characteristics like brand, SPF level, or type of sunscreen (chemical or mineral) would not sway the results. Our sunscreen experts provided instruction on how to apply each type of sunscreen (lotion or spray) to the forearms, and how much to use. 

For each product, the participants filled out a questionnaire covering absorbency, skin feel, and smell at 2 minutes and 10 minutes after application. In addition, we asked them to rate on a scale from 1 to 5 how important the following factors were to them when choosing a sunscreen: how well it absorbs, how long it takes to absorb, how it feels on the skin, scent, price, and efficacy (how well it protects the skin from the sun).

What We Found

While all the factors were viewed as important, overall, efficacy and how well a sunscreen absorbs were cited as more important by most of the volunteers. (The volunteers didn’t judge efficacy. CR tests sunscreens in a lab for UVA and SPF protection, as well as for variation from SPF. CR members can see the results in our ratings.)

Skin feel and scent preference varied from product to product and person to person, but in general, there was a consensus on the absorbency evaluation.

The five lotions and sprays with chemical active ingredients (such as avobenzone or octocrylene) absorbed well for a majority of the group, regardless of skin tone, and most were satisfied with the appearance 10 minutes after application. These chemicals protect skin from the sun by absorbing ultraviolet rays and releasing the energy as heat before the rays can penetrate the skin. But some consumers want to avoid these chemicals because they can be absorbed into the bloodstream, and some of these sunscreens are suspected of harming ocean life.

The other option is a mineral sunscreen, which protects with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both. These formulas sit on top of the skin and deflect UV rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide aren’t absorbed into the bloodstream, and “non-nano” versions appear to be less environmentally concerning than those with certain chemical ingredients. But CR’s tests have consistently found that mineral sunscreens don’t protect as well. And the two mineral lotions our volunteers tried left most of them disappointed. Many complained about the chalky or white appearance they left on skin, and some complained about how difficult they were to rub in, even after 10 minutes.

Below are specific details from our panelists’ evaluations of each of the sunscreens, listed in alphabetical order.

CR members can read on for details about how the sunscreens that were included in this evaluation performed in our tests and ratings.

Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear Spray SPF 50

This sunscreen got kudos from a majority of the group and was a favorite for some. “I love this sunscreen,” said a participant with type 6 skin. Most were satisfied with the way it was absorbed into the skin. “This sunscreen is barely visible, absorbs quickly,” said one who described their skin as type 5 on the Fitzpatrick scale. The verdict was mixed on the scent (which our professional sensory panel described as “very slight candylike aroma”). For example, one volunteer compared it to “car air freshener,” but another said it had "a very light, pleasant smell.” Nevertheless, most said they’d use this sunscreen again.

Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin Face Lotion SPF 50

At the 2-minute mark, a majority of the participants found that this sunscreen looked white on their skin, and they didn’t see much difference after 10 minutes. “It’s so thick and white that it seems like it would never absorb into my skin. It’s always a little embarrassing at the beach when I look ghostly white from sunscreen on my light brown skin,” said one. Even the fairest in our group had issues. “It was quite a workout trying to rub this stuff in,” said someone with type 1 skin. More people than not said it was “sticky,” and speaking of the skin feel, one said “I imagine it might cause me to perspire if I were wearing it on a hot and sunny day.” The group’s overall take on this sunscreen can be summed up by the words of a participant who described their skin as type 6: “This one is a toss.” But another one did say, “The sunscreen overall is fine; I don’t dislike it.”

Black Girl Sunscreen Face and Body SPF 30

This sunscreen is the only one in our evaluation that was specifically created for darker skin tones. At 2 minutes after application, it had absorbed into almost everyone’s skin. “This sunscreen felt high-quality, had a shimmer that made my skin feel moisturized and healthy. I like how it compliments my skin tone . . . It has a neutral smell that is barely noticeable” said a volunteer with type 3 skin. Another, who has type 6 skin, said it left “zero cast.” Most said they’d use it again, but it didn’t win everyone over. “I did not like how oily/shiny my skin looked,” a participant said. “It leaves my arm hair looking greasy and oily, and that would make me feel self-conscious” said another.

While the other products in our evaluation are included in our current sunscreen ratings, the rating of this product’s efficacy was delayed due to the impact the pandemic had on our testing schedule. We hope to be able to add it to our ratings in the coming months.

California Kids #supersensitive Tinted Lotion SPF 30+

Like the other mineral sunscreen, this product left a noticeable white cast on nearly every participant. “I’m already very pale, so this made me look ghostly,” said one. “My arm looked as though it was rubbed in chalk,” said another, who has type 4 skin.  A few people commented that the sunscreen looked silver, lavender, or glittery on their skin. “I feel like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, because it left a silver tint. It’s not meant for people with tan or brown skin tones,” one said. More of the group described it as having a greasy feel than anything else, and most were neutral about the scent or disliked it. (Like many fragrance-free products, this one had a slight sweet plastic aroma—think beach ball—our professional sensory testing panel concluded.) A few noted that it gave skin a flat or matte look. Still, some observed that at 10 minutes after application, it wasn’t as white as it first appeared. Most said they would not use it again, but the verdict wasn’t all bad. “If I were in a bind or this sunscreen was on sale, I would buy it and be satisfied,” a participant with type 6 skin said.

Equate (Walmart) Sport Lotion SPF 50

A majority of the group said they’d use this sunscreen again. Most described its appearance as either no different from the rest of their skin or having some degree of shininess. A few thought it gave a flat or matte appearance. More described it as making their skin feel soft and smooth, though others said it was sticky or greasy. Some commented on the thickness of the sunscreen. "It was very difficult to squeeze this lotion from the bottle even after shaking it 10 times," one said. "Someone with weak hands would have a hard time with it. It is rather thick." Most liked the classic beachy aroma. Bottom line: “This lotion looks and feels like sunscreen ought to look and feel—transparent, unobtrusive,” said a participant with type 3 skin. “It’s a clear keeper for me,” said another, who has type 6 skin.

Kiehl's Activated Sun Protector Water-Light Lotion SPF 30

Another winner among our group. “This sunscreen is really nice. It goes on like a regular skin lotion and absorbed quickly. It was a tad shiny at first but soon after (by about minute 6) it looked just like the rest of my skin,” said a participant with type 5 skin. Others, too, commented on how this sunscreen left skin feeling soft or moisturized. And most were pleased with the feel. “There is just a slight residue where I applied it, but it doesn’t feel slick or sticky,” a participant said. The group was split on the scent: About half liked it and the other half neither liked or disliked it. (The product is fragrance-free, which doesn’t mean odor-free. It has a barely ­there sweet plastic aroma, our professional sensory panelists noted.)

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Sunscreen Spray SPF 60

Though most of the volunteers said this fragrance-free spray absorbed well and they’d use it again, several commented on its greasy or oily feel—some more charitably than others. “It makes my skin look a little dewy. But it does have a greasy feel,” said one. “This sunscreen makes me feel like a wet rat. Plus, everywhere I lay my arm down it leaves an oily stain,” another said. Some said the product came out white rather than clear, and that struck them as unusual for a spray. A participant with type 3 skin said: “At first I was worried that this spray-on would stay white on my skin. The white faded, and it looked shinier after a few minutes. I think I would need to rub this one in more than I would rub in clear spray-ons, and give it more time to absorb.” Most were neutral on the scent, but some people did like it.

Trisha Calvo

I've covered health and nutrition my entire career, so I know how to separate science from hype. Whether it's about food labels, sunscreen, or food safety, my goal is to deliver information that makes following a healthy lifestyle easier. Healthy cooking is a favorite hobby, and friends think I'm crazy, but I can happily spend hours grocery shopping. Follow me on Twitter. (@TrishaCalvo)