Shop Smarter for Sunscreen
Confused about all those terms on sunscreen labels? Use CR’s expertise to find the best options for you.
Whether you have fair or dark skin, you hit the beach every day or only on vacation, or you’re 16 or 60, you need to use sunscreen if you’ll be in the sun for longer than a few minutes. But with bottles and tubes covered with claims, “it’s really hard to make sense of what all the terminology means,” says Roopal V. Kundu, M.D., an associate professor of dermatology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who researches how people buy and use sunscreen.
Here, then, is the help you need: seven common terms and what they actually mean—and don’t. The federal government requires sunscreen claims to be “truthful and not misleading.” But only three of the main claims consumers see—“SPF,” “broad-spectrum,” and “water-resistant”—are strictly regulated by the government and therefore have agreed-upon definitions. So explore our ratings of 73 lotions, sprays, and sticks (based on our scientific testing) to make sure you’re less likely to get burned at the checkout counter—or on the beach.
SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of how well a sunscreen guards against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, the chief cause of sunburn, and a contributor to skin cancer. You might think that an SPF 30, for example, is twice as protective as an SPF 15, but the SPF 15 shields you from 93 percent of UVB rays and the 30 blocks 97 percent.
Products with this label protect against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin’s layers than UVB; and cause damage that can lead to skin aging and, as with UVB, skin cancer. But while it’s easy to tell how well a broad spectrum sunscreen protects against UVB rays (just check its SPF), you can't tell how well it protects against UVA rays.
For example, the FDA-required broad spectrum test is pass/fail. So a sunscreen providing stellar UVA coverage can be labeled broad spectrum the same way one just barely skating by can, and there’s no way to know the difference. That’s why we designed our test to show which sunscreens provide additional UVA protection beyond the minimum required.
Very Water Resistant
The FDA requires “water resistant” and “very water resistant” sunscreens to maintain their SPF levels for 40 or 80 minutes of sweating or swimming, respectively. You won’t see a product sporting a “waterproof” claim; the FDA doesn’t allow it because there’s no such thing. The minute you jump into a pool or begin to sweat, says Kundu, sunscreen starts to run off your skin. That’s why even water-resistant products need to be reapplied as soon as you come out of the water.
This means that the product probably works like a water-resistant or very water-resistant sunscreen, says Kundu. But check the label to make sure one of those terms is on the bottle, too. If not, you can’t be sure you’ll be protected when you sweat or swim.
Just because a sunscreen is stamped with this claim (or “doctor tested”) doesn’t make the product superior to one without it, says Kundu.
“‘Recommended’ may mean that at some point a clinician was consulted,” she says. As for the “tested” claim, you have no way of knowing what the product was tested for or how extensive the testing was. Because manufacturers aren’t required to adhere to strict definitions for these terms, it’s impossible to know whether any of the claims are meaningful.
Natural or Mineral
There are no standards for these terms, but they’re commonly used for sunscreens that contain the minerals titanium oxide, zinc oxide, or both as active ingredients. These so-called physical sunscreens protect against UV rays by deflecting them, while chemical sunscreens, such as avobenzone, absorb UV light.
But just because a sunscreen has mineral ingredients doesn’t mean it’s better for you than a chemical one. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, for example, aren’t just plucked from the earth and plopped into your sunscreen; they’re processed and refined, too.
Dermatologists often recommend titanium and zinc formulas for children and people with sensitive skin. However, in the past six years of sunscreen testing, we haven’t found a mineral product that offers both top-notch UVA and UVB protection, and meets its labeled SPF, says Susan Booth, the project leader for our sunscreen testing. If you still want a mineral sunscreen, we suggest California Kids #Supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+ or Badger Active Unscented Cream SPF 30.
Some of the ingredients in sunscreen can damage delicate coral reef systems, which in turn can affect the health of the oceans. Up to 6,000 tons of sunscreens are estimated to wash into coral reefs around the globe each year.
But you can’t be sure you’re making an environmentally friendly choice by using a sunscreen labeled “reef safe.” Sunscreen manufacturers aren’t required to test and demonstrate that such products won’t harm aquatic life, says Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a nonprofit scientific research organization.
And research supports the evidence that oxybenzone, a commonly used chemical sunscreen ingredient, contributes to coral bleaching, a condition that leaves coral vulnerable to infection and prevents it from getting the nutrients it needs to survive. As a result, Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone, beginning in 2021, and some retailers, such as REI, are implementing policies against carrying products that contain it.
But oxybenzone isn’t the only damaging ingredient. “There are 11 chemicals that we know from the scientific literature that pose an environmental threat,” says Downs.
If you plan to go into the water at the beach, a better environmental bet may be to cover most of your body with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing—or even just a plain old T-shirt, which previous CR testing has found to offer excellent protection. You’ll still have to apply sunscreen to exposed skin, but you’ll need far less—up to half the amount, Downs says—than you would if you were in a bathing suit. “From an environmental perspective,” Downs says, that’s a “massive victory.”
Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide appear to be safer for coral reefs than chemical ones, according to the National Park Service. But mineral sunscreens generally aren’t highly rated by CR for screening out harmful UV light. The two mineral sunscreens listed in the previous section fared well in our tests.
Another alternative is to use an oxybenzone-free chemical sunscreen. The two highest-scoring such sunscreens in each category in our test were Well at Walgreens Moisturizing Lotion SPF 50 and Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport Ultra Light Spray SPF 30.
Do sunscreens really protect as much as they claim? On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, Consumer Reports' expert Sue Booth breaks down what you need to know to keep you safe from the sun's harmful rays.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.