SPF, UVA and UVB: What do sunscreen labels mean?
Sunscreens are available in an endless array of sprays, lotions and creams, with sun protection factors (SPFs) that range from 15 to 100 and higher. Theoretically, SPF denotes how many times longer than usual a sunbather could stay in the sun without burning (so if you normally burn in 30 minutes, an SPF of 15 would prevent you from burning for 15 times as long). In reality, SPF claims are unrealistic, and experts say the improvement in protection between SPF 30 and SPF 100 is quite negligible.
With this in mind, the Food and Drug Administration implemented new sunscreen labeling regulations in 2012. The rules cracked down on products inaccurately labeled "broad-spectrum" -- those that protect against both UVA and UVB rays -- and required that products change their terminology from "waterproof" or "sweatproof" to "water-resistant" or "sweat-resistant." The FDA has also proposed limiting sunscreens to no higher than SPF 50+, but has yet to implement such a requirement. The agency says high SPF may give people a false sense of security, causing them to stay in the sun longer or skip reapplying sunscreen.
It's important to look for broad-spectrum formulas because you need protection from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are longer and penetrate the skin at deeper levels than UVB rays, causing long-term damage associated with signs of aging and skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, these rays are "present with relatively equal intensity during all daylight hours throughout the year, and can penetrate clouds and glass." UVB rays, on the other hand, are shorter and are the main culprit of sunburns. Unlike UVA rays, the intensity of UVB rays varies by season, location and time of day.
One way to avoid sunburn -- and sun damage -- altogether is to just stay out of the sun. If you want a safer glow, check out our report on the best self tanners to find a product that will help you glow.
Most sunscreens use chemicals to absorb UV rays
Chemical sunscreens are the most common type of sunscreen, and they make up the majority of products from well-known manufacturers including Banana Boat, Coppertone and Neutrogena. Chemical sunscreens mix and match different blockers to absorb UV rays and release the energy, preventing most of the rays from reaching the skin.
Chemical sunscreens have a lot going for them: They are readily available on store shelves, can be relatively inexpensive, and are easy to apply. However, some groups have raised health concerns about the safety of ingredients commonly used in chemical sunscreens. Those include UV filters such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, synthetic preservatives called parabens, and a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate. Some groups say there's evidence these ingredients can disrupt the body's hormonal functions, raising our risk for problems including reproductive issues and cancer.
Whether this is actually the case is still very much up for debate. Most experts, including the American Academy of Dermatology, say there's no concrete evidence that these ingredients cause real health issues in humans, and that research suggesting otherwise is limited in scope and application. However, if you're concerned, experts recommend looking for a natural (or "physical") sunscreen that uses minerals to block harmful rays instead of chemicals. More on those in a minute.
Sunscreens for kids focus on safe, non-irritating ingredients
Many sunscreens are advertised specifically for babies and kids. However, the only differences between these and adult sunscreens are that many (but not all) of kids' sunscreens omit fragrances and rely on physical sun blockers -- zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide -- instead of chemicals such as oxybenzone. For that reason, they may take a little more effort to rub into skin, because they sit on top of the skin to block UV rays as opposed to absorbing the rays the way chemical sunscreens do. Beware: specially formulated kids' sunscreens can be quite pricey, and the natural ones aren't as readily available on store shelves.
Face sunscreens are thinner, absorb more easily
Some people prefer not to use sunscreen on their face because it can be thick and greasy, or because it may run into their eyes and sting. The best face sunscreens, however, are thinner, lighter and won't run, no matter how much you sweat or get wet. Many face sunscreens also contain a moisturizer and can be layered under makeup for everyday wear. Unfortunately, specially formulated face sunscreen can also be expensive compared to regular sunscreen. For everyday wear, you might be better off with a facial moisturizer that includes a sunscreen, we cover those in a separate report.
Natural sunscreens omit chemicals in favor of physical sun blockers
Natural sunscreens, also known as physical sunscreens, use minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their active ingredients. These minerals form a protective layer on the skin that blocks and reflects the sun's harmful rays. The main downside of these ingredients is that they can often be difficult to rub in, and they sometimes leave a thick or chalky white residue. They may also feel somewhat greasy. Natural sunscreens also aren't as common on store shelves as their chemical counterparts, and they're often more expensive.
How we chose the best sunscreen
There are a handful of recent, comparative hands-on tests of sunscreens by outlets such as ConsumerReports.org and TheSweethome.com. Also helpful were in-depth expert reviews at PaulasChoice.com and the massive sunscreen effectiveness and safety database at EWG.org. Roundups from sites such as GoodHousekeeping.com and Elle.com provided more products to investigate. We compared well-regarded sunscreens from these sources with consumer reviews on sites such as Amazon.com, MakeupAlley.com and Ulta.com. The result is our recommendations for sunscreens with the best combination of effectiveness and ease of use.
The best sunscreen
Reviewers say Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate (Est. $1.42 per oz.) checks off the most important boxes for sunscreen: It's inexpensive, effective, easy to use and feels good on the skin. Available as both a lotion and spray, Protect & Hydrate includes an all-day moisturizer that contains aloe vera and antioxidants.
Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate offers broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It's available in SPF 30 and 50. The former version fares well in expert tests, earning top marks for protection against UVA radiation and, unlike many other sunscreens, meeting its claimed SPF level. Environmental Working Group (EWG) says the lotion provides "moderate" sun protection but notes that it contains oxybenzone and propylparaben, which are singled out as potential toxins. Still, the SPF 30 version gets a moderately low overall health-risk rating.
It's easy to use Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate, which most reviewers say goes on smoothly and is absorbed quickly. They also report that the sunscreen isn't greasy and doesn't leave their skin feeling sticky. Paula Begoun of PaulasChoice.com says Protect & Hydrate "is truly moisturizing" and "feels quite nice." She recommends it for anyone with normal to dry skin. The sunscreen is fragrance free, which many reviewers appreciate.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch (Est. $3.13 per ounce) is another well-reviewed option that, while pricier, is beloved for its lightweight feel and wide variety of formulations. Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch is available as a lotion, spray, liquid and body stick.
If you're picky about your SPF, note that Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch is available in six levels ranging from SPF 30 to 100. All of the formulations contain Helioplex, a patented ingredient that stabilizes avobenzone and allows for longer protection times. The broad-spectrum lotion protects against both UVA and UVB rays and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. Experts give the SPF 45 version top marks for UVA protection but say the water-resistance left something to be desired, making it especially important to reapply after swimming. EWG rates the lotion slightly higher than Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate for sun protection, but also gives it a higher overall health-risk rating. Oxybenzone and BHT are flagged as the riskiest ingredients.
Reviewers love the lightweight feel of Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch sunscreen. Begoun of Paula's Choice says that the formula goes on "creamy but dries down to a weightless matte" finish. She also says it's an excellent option for oily skin types who struggle to find a sunscreen that doesn't feel heavy or greasy. Users say their skin feels dry to the touch after applying. However, some note it can be hard to rub in the lotion thoroughly enough and get rid of the white streaks. The formula contains some floral fragrance, and while many users don't mind it or even like it, others would prefer a fragrance-free formula.
If you want a sunscreen that's cheap enough for sun warriors who need to reapply multiple times a day, reviewers say No-AD Sport (Est. 90 cents per oz.) is an inexpensive but effective choice. No-AD Sport contains aloe, avobenzone and Vitamin E and is available as a lotion, face lotion, spray, and body and face stick.
Like Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate, No-AD Sport is available in SPF 30 or 50 and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It meets SPF claims in expert tests and receives top marks for UVA and UVB protection. EWG says the lotion provides "moderate" sun protection but flags oxybenzone as the riskiest ingredient. Still, the SPF 50 version gets a moderately low overall health-risk rating.
Reviewers say No-AD Sport is relatively thin, making it easy to apply. The sunscreen "rubbed in very nicely compared to other sunscreens that we tested," notes Shannon Palus of TheSweethome.com. "No one had a single major complaint about it in testing." Owners echo this praise, saying it absorbs quickly and doesn't feel greasy. They also love the fact that this sunscreen is fragrance-free.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Sunscreen for Kids | Best Sunscreen for the Face | Best Natural Sunscreen | Buying Guide | Our Sources