Product Reviews

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Get a Good Sunscreen at the Right Price

Consumer Reports’ tests show that you can’t always judge a sunscreen’s performance by how much it costs

No doubt about it: If you’re using sunscreen properly, you’re going to go through a lot of it over the course of the summer.

Let’s do the math. It takes a full ounce to cover your body and you need to apply that amount every 2 hours you’re in the sun. Most sunscreens come in 4- to 6-ounce containers, so a family of four who each spend 8 hours a week in the sun should easily use 37 to 56 bottles of sunscreen from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Sunscreen can be pricey, but here's the good news: You can get a good sunscreen for a lot less than you think. In fact, according to Consumer Reports’ sunscreen tests, you can’t judge a sunscreen by its price at all.

“We found highly protective sunscreens that cost over $7 per ounce and under $1 per ounce,” says Susan Booth, the project leader for CR’s sunscreen testing. Five of the 13 top performing lotions and sprays in CR’s ratings are priced at $1 or less per ounce.

How We Test Sunscreens

In CR’s comprehensive testing, we looked at more than 60 sunscreens on the market that cost anywhere from 56 cents to $9.75 per ounce. We included products from beauty brands such as La Roche Posay and Supergoop, drugstore sunscreens such as those from Coppertone and Neutrogena, and store brands such as Trader Joe’s and Well at Walgreens. All of the sunscreens were labeled SPF 30 or higher, broad spectrum—meaning they protect against both ultraviolet (UV) A and B rays—and water resistant.

“We buy sunscreens off the shelf, the way consumers would,” says Booth. Every sunscreen in our ratings is tested at a lab in the same way. “We use three samples, preferably with different lot numbers, of each product,” Booth says.

The first test checks for protection against UVB rays. These are the rays that tend to damage the epidermis, the skin’s outer layer, causing sunburn and contributing to skin cancer. SPF (sun protection factor) is a relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays.

In our UVB test, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to small areas of our panelists’ backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, each area is exposed to six intensities of UVB light from a sun simulator for a set time. About a day later, a trained technician examines the areas for redness.  

We also test to see how well a sunscreen shields your skin from UVA rays, which penetrate into the skin’s dermal layer, damaging collagen and elastic tissue. This leads to premature skin aging and skin cancer. Unlike UVB rays, which are strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., UVA rays are present throughout daylight hours, even on cloudy days. That’s why you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

The test, which allows us to determine the degree of UVA protection, involves smearing sunscreen on plastic plates, passing UV light through, and measuring the amount of UVA and UVB rays that are absorbed.

Price vs. Performance

Our overall sunscreen ratings are a combination of the results from our UVA and UVB tests, as well as variation from SPF, a measure of how closely a sunscreen’s tested SPF matched the SPF on the label.

When we plotted the scores against the price per ounce for all of the sunscreens in our tests, we saw no clear relationship between price and performance.

“We’ve seen this distribution year after year in our testing,” says Martin Romm, lead statistician for CR's sunscreen testing project. We’ve created a chart for CR subscribers (make sure you're logged in) that plots 18 of the sunscreens in our ratings this year as examples to underscore our point.  

Sunscreens in Our Ratings.
Current Sunscreen Ratings