Most experts and consumers say the lightweight Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch sunscreen line is the best overall. These formulas provide broad-spectrum protection and are available in SPF 30, 45, 55, 70, 85 and 100 formulations. The SPF 30 formula (*Est. $9 for 3 oz.) is reviewed most often, but the SPF 45 and 55 also receive some positive reviews.
Users at MakeupAlley.com and Drugstore.com praise the lightweight feel of the SPF 30, 45 and 55 sunscreens and say the formula dries to a nice, matte finish. Editors at InStyle magazine agree, recommending the Neutrogena sunscreen for those who don't like wearing a thick lotion. Testers say Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch absorbs so quickly that "you can't tell it's on." Many users say, however, that the SPF 70 and higher formulations are too thick and heavy.
Paula Begoun, beauty expert and author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me," says SPFs of 70, 85 and especially 100 are a lot for the skin to handle and provide about 24 hours of protection, which is not necessary. Furthermore, she cautions that each of these formulas contains methylisothiazolinone, a preservative that is known to cause skin irritation, even in small amounts.
The SPF 55 and higher formulas do, however, include Helioplex -- an additive that may give greater peace of mind because it stabilizes UVA-screening avobenzone, allowing this product to protect the skin for longer periods. (Some experts say avobenzone, without stabilizing ingredients, degrades in sunlight, but we didn't find much solid research to back up this claim.) The SPF 30 and 45 formulas don't contain Helioplex, but experts say the UVA protection is still adequate. User reviews at MakeupAlley.com show a slight preference for these formulas because they are lightweight and don't leave any residue.
It should be noted that both Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch SPF 30 and SPF 45 sunscreens contain antioxidants (vitamins A,C and E), and the higher SPF formulations do not. Studies show that antioxidants are especially effective at protecting against sun damage when combined with sunscreen and further help to stabilize avobenzone. For that reason, we chose the SPF 30 version for our Best Reviewed section.
The drawback to the highly rated Neutrogena sunscreen is its cost of more than $3 per ounce, making it an expensive choice for families who go through gallons of the stuff each summer. One highly rated alternative is No-Ad Sunblock Lotion SPF 45 (*Est. $8.25 for 16 oz.) , which costs approximately 50 cents per ounce. The company, which has been around since 1960, says its mission is provide high-quality sunscreen at affordable prices. To achieve this, No-Ad doesn't advertise their products (hence the name).
On the other end of the price spectrum, we found good reviews for BareMinerals SPF 30 Natural Sunscreen (*Est. $30 for 0.14 oz.) . It's a titanium dioxide-based powder formula with a built-in brush applicator. Reviewers like it because it blots excess oil rather and doesn't leave faces shiny. Editors at InStyle magazine praise the formula because it can easily be stored in the car for quick touchups (the powder doesn't degrade as easily as liquid). The unique packaging also makes it very portable.
Paula Begoun says that the powder has a soft, sheer texture with minimal shine. Users at MakeupAlley.com agree. Many also appreciate how easy it is to apply the formula even though a few say that it's hard to tell how much of the powder is coming out of the container. It's also pricey for a very small amount. BareMinerals Natural Sunscreen is available in three shades (light, medium and tan) to match a wide range of skin tones.
Sport-formula sunscreens are designed to resist sweat during physical activity. Spray-on sunscreens can also be a convenient choice because users don't have to rub them in. However, a fair amount of product is lost into the air during application (which can lead to less coverage), and users can't spray these sunscreens on their faces. Furthermore, the FDA is investigating potential risks involved with these spray-on sunscreens -- namely the risks involved with possible inhalation of chemicals during application. Until further information is know, experts say it's best not to use spray sunscreens on children.
Coppertone Sport High Performance Sunscreen Continuous Spray SPF 30 (*Est. $9.75 for 6 oz.) combines the convenience of a spray-on formula with the strength of a sport formula. It does well in professional reviews, where it gets high marks for being water- and sweat-resistant. Editors at InStyle magazine also praise it, saying the aerosol makes it easy to protect hard-to-reach areas. Users agree that this spray is easy to use and dries quickly. However, a few consumers say Coppertone feels a bit sticky -- "like hairspray," one writes -- and can be hard to tell where it has and hasn't been applied (the end result being sunburn).
Paula Begoun, on the other hand, gives this sunscreen a poor rating because it contains high levels of denatured alcohol (common in spray-on formulas) that can irritate the skin. Though we didn't find any user complaints about irritation. Coppertone recently added avobenzone to the formula, making it compliant with forthcoming FDA guidelines by providing broad spectrum protection. Coppertone Sport Continuous Spray is available in SPF 15, 30, 50, 70+ and 100+ formulas.
Most sunscreens require you to dry off before applying the product in order to avoid a gloppy mess. Not Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunblock Spray (*Est. $11.50 for 5 oz.) it is formulated to adhere to wet skin. Editors at Allure, Shape and Self magazines call the formula "genius." Even Paula Begoun is impressed with the convenience the formula provides, but she is quick to point out that it contains a lot of alcohol, which can irritate the skin. She recommends using it only when skin is damp.
Users posting reviews at Amazon.com are less positive. Many like the convenience, but several say that it isn't very effective. More than a third of reviewers posting to the site say that they got sunburned while using the sunscreen. Although it can be easy to miss spots with a spray-on sunscreen, we chose to leave this product out of our best-reviewed selections due to the high percentage of complaints.
If you prefer a lotion-based sport formula -- which may be more economical but less convenient -- No-Ad Sport Sunblock Lotion SPF 50 (*Est. $8.25 for 16 oz.) is an option. It relies on avobenzone for broad UVA and UVB protection. It also contains aloe and vitamin E for added moisture. Users at Drugstore.com and Walmart.com say that it is easy to rub into skin but doesn't have a strong odor. It is a user favorite because it's reasonably priced and it works. Some point out that it can be a bit greasy, however.