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Sunscreen Buying Guide

By: Tara Tuckwiller on June 08, 2017

The best sunscreen has:

  • Broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. SPF, or sun protection factor, refers only to protection from UVB rays; for protection against long-term UVA damage, you need a sunscreen that shields both UVA and UVB. Look for the words "broad spectrum" on the label, which indicate the presence of both kinds of blockers. See below for more information on what the terms SPF, UVA and UVB mean.

  • SPF 30 or higher. Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. However, you don't need much higher than that: SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 50 only boosts that to 98 percent.

  • Smooth and easy application. Whether you want something thick and moisturizing or lightweight and matte, it's important that the sunscreen is easy to rub into your skin.

  • Water resistance. For a day at the beach or a sweaty workout under the sun, a water-resistant formula is important. FDA guidelines require manufacturers to state how long they maintain their SPF level while in water: either 40 or 80 minutes.

Know before you go

Can you take other measures to stay safe from the sun? Environmental Working Group recommends taking other sun-safe steps first before adding sunscreen to the mix. Those steps include wearing lightweight clothing that covers the skin, finding or creating shade, and avoiding prolonged outdoor activities during hours when the sun's rays are most intense -- 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to the FDA.

Are you using sunscreen properly? The American Academy of Dermatology says most people don't use nearly enough sunscreen to offer optimal protection. You need an ounce of sunscreen, or enough to fill a shot glass, to cover your entire body while wearing a swimsuit. Chemical sunscreens should also be applied 15 minutes before sun exposure, and all sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.

Do you want physical or chemical blockers? Physical sunscreens reflect the sun's rays naturally, but they can be difficult to rub in and leave skin white. Most importantly, they don't protect as well against UVA and UVB rays as chemical sunscreens in expert testing. Chemical ingredients rub in more easily and prove more effective, but some groups say the ingredients pose a long-term health risk, and one -- oxybenzone -- kills coral reefs, research shows.

Do you need water- or sweat-resistance? For a daily sunscreen, comfort and wearability are among the most important factors to consider, but for a day of swimming or sweating (at sports or hard outdoor work), water resistance is paramount. Remember, you'll still need to reapply every two hours or after swimming or heavy sweating, even with water-resistant sunscreen.

What about sprays? Sunscreen sprays offer the ultimate in convenience, but they're flammable, and experts warn against using them on children, who might inhale ingredients. They also say to avoid using sprays on your face -- instead, spray your hands and rub it in like a lotion. Remember that you still need a whole ounce of sunblock to cover your body: ConsumerReports.org recommend that you apply as much as you can rub in, and then repeat.

Is the sunscreen for face or body? Delicate facial skin typically requires a more sensitive formula than the rest of your body. However, face sunscreens often cost far more than body sunscreens, so it pays to have one formula for each. You may be better served by a facial moisturizer with an SPF of at least 30; we cover those in a separate report.

What's your skin type? Consistency and texture is a subjective matter -- those with dry skin may want something creamy and emollient, while those with oily skin will appreciate a lightweight sunscreen with a matte finish. If you're prone to breakouts, an oil-free formula will be ideal.

Do you have sensitive skin? Some users cannot tolerate certain ingredients in chemical sunscreens. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, found in physical sunscreens, are generally considered the most gentle sunscreen options. However, keep in mind that other ingredients, such as fragrance and preservatives, may also cause a reaction. It's always a good idea to test sunscreen on a small patch of skin before applying it liberally.

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. Contrary to popular belief, SPF has nothing to do with how long you can theoretically stay in the sun without burning (for example, if you normally burn in 30 minutes, an SPF of 15 would prevent you from burning for 15 times as long). In reality, SPF is related not to time of sun exposure, but amount: SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 50 blocks 98 percent and SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. (No sunscreen blocks 100 percent of UVB rays.)

So there's very little real difference between SPF 30 and SPF 100. Also, SPF only refers to protection against UVB rays; it has nothing to do with UVA protection.

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."

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.

Unfortunately, you can't just rely on a sunscreen's label when assessing the protection they offer. Many sunscreens fail to live up to their SPF claims. Some major-brand sunscreens deliver less than half of their stated SPF in ConsumerReports.org's tests, and several fail to protect well against both UVA and UVB rays.

One way to avoid sunburn -- and sun damage -- altogether is to just stay out of the sun. If you want a safer tan, check out our report on the best self tanners to find a product that will help you glow.

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