Best Sunscreens of 2021

Protect your skin against the sun's damaging UV rays using CR's ratings of dozens of sun protection products

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person applying sunscreen to child's arm Photo: Getty Images

Dermatologists always say that the best sunscreen is the one you’ll actually use—so how to choose one you’ll like that really protects you? Consumer Reports’ ratings of 45 lotions and sprays will help you find a product that protects you against the effects of overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays—sunburn, skin cancer, and wrinkles—and that has a scent and feel that’s right for you.

Two products scored well enough in CR’s tests to be recommended. There are a few others that, while not at the top of the ratings, still provide adequate protection. Keep in mind, though, that using any sunscreen on exposed skin is better than no sunscreen when you’re spending time outdoors.

But sunscreen shouldn’t be the only sun-savvy step you take. You also need to cover up with clothing, wear a hat and sunglasses, and stay in the shade or indoors when the sun’s rays are the strongest—from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

sunscreen testing
CR's panel of sensory testers evaluate sunscreens for scent and feel.


How We Test Sunscreens

CR uses a testing protocol that is modeled on the one the Food and Drug Administration requires sunscreen manufacturers to use. But as is the case with other products we test that have government or industry standards, we use those standards as benchmarks and develop our own methodology to identify differences in performance and give consumers a comparative evaluation.

More on Sunscreen

“We buy the sunscreens for our tests off the shelf, the way consumers would,” says Susan Booth, the project leader for our sunscreen testing. “We use three samples, preferably with different lot numbers, of each product.” All the products are tested for SPF and ultraviolet A (UVA) protection.

SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects against sunburn, which is mostly the result of exposure to the sun’s UVB rays.

To check SPF, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to 2x3-inch rectangle on panelists’ backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, smaller sections of that area are exposed to five to six intensities of UV light from a sun simulator for a set time. About a day later, a trained technician examines the areas for redness. The resulting SPF ratings—Excellent to Poor—reflect each product’s effectiveness after water immersion and are based on an average of our results for each sunscreen. We also calculate a score for variation from SPF. This is a measure of how closely a sunscreen’s tested SPF matched the SPF on the label.

In order to be labeled “broad spectrum,” the FDA requires that a sunscreen protect against UVB and UVA rays. UVA rays penetrate deeply into the skin and cause damage that can lead to skin cancer and skin aging.

To test for UVA protection, we smear sunscreen on plastic plates, pass UV light through, and measure the amount of UVA and UVB rays that are absorbed. That information is used to calculate our UVA score.

This test is similar to the critical wavelength test the FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to do in order to label their products broad-spectrum. This is a pass/fail test, and just as you can pass a test with either an A or a D grade, some sunscreens do a much better job of defending against UVA than others. That’s why, for our ratings, we also use a test that allows us to measure the degree of UVA protection a sunscreen provides.

Our sunscreen ratings, updated now for the second time in 2021, currently have fewer products than in past years, primarily because of the pandemic’s impact on our testing schedule, and because some previously tested sunscreens have been reformulated or discontinued. We plan to update our sunscreen ratings in the coming months.

Finding a Sunscreen You’ll Want to Use

For many people, the way a sunscreen smells and feels on their skin is as important as the UV protection it provides. So in addition to our performance tests, our trained sensory panelists also evaluate sunscreens for scent and feel. The sensory testing isn’t factored into our Overall Score—what people prefer is subjective, so we can’t say, for instance, whether a sunscreen that has a tropical aroma is better than one with a classic beachy aroma. But our panelists objectively describe the scent and feel of every sunscreen we test so that you can pick the best product for you.

Environmental concerns also drive sunscreen choices. The majority of the sunscreens in our ratings do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. These two chemical active ingredients are highly effective UV filters, but they are the ones that are most often flagged as being potentially harmful to coral reefs. (See specifics on sunscreen ingredients in the sections below.)

We also include the price per container and the price per ounce so that you can weigh all the factors when you’re choosing a sunscreen.

Below are some of the top-performing sunscreens in our tests, listed in alphabetical order within their category. CR members have access to our full ratings.

Best Lotion Sunscreens

It’s easier to make sure you’re getting adequate coverage with a lotion than with a spray because you can see how much you’re applying. Use about a teaspoon per body part or area that’s not covered up with clothing: 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. If you are in a bathing suit, you’ll need about an ounce of lotion to cover your body. That’s about the amount that fills a shot glass. (Note: the Kiehl's and Neutrogena products below contain oxybenzone.)

Best Spray Sunscreens

Our tests found that if you apply spray properly, you can cover your skin adequately in one pass, but proper application isn’t always easy, especially when it’s windy. Oftentimes you end up protecting the air more than your skin. The proper way to use a spray is to hold the nozzle close to your skin and spray until your skin glistens, then rub it in. Do this even if a spray is labeled “no rub”; smoothing it into skin increases its protection. Then repeat, just to be safe. Never spray your face because you could get it in your eyes or inhale it. Instead, spray the sunscreen into your hands and rub it onto your face.

Consumer Reports recommends using a lotion on kids rather than a spray, but if you choose to use a spray, be very careful when applying it. Children are more likely to inhale the mist, which could cause lung irritation. The best thing to do is spray it into your hands and rub it onto your child’s skin. At the very least, have children close their eyes and mouth and turn their heads while you spray. And sprays can be flammable when they are wet, so be sure to keep yourself and kids away from any heat source—such as a grill—until the product is thoroughly dry on the skin. (Note: The Banana Boat and La Roche-Posay products below contain oxybenzone.)

Best Mineral Sunscreens

So-called mineral or natural sunscreens are those that contain titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as the active ingredients. Many people prefer them because they don’t contain chemical active ingredients such as avobenzone or oxybenzone. However, in CR’s testing over the years, mineral sunscreens have consistently performed less well than those that contain chemical active ingredients. Some provide adequate SPF protection but not enough UVA protection, or vice versa. If you are concerned about chemical exposure and prefer to use a mineral sunscreen, our testing found that these two provide acceptable protection, although they aren’t among the top performers in our tests.

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)