Sunscreen Buying Guide


The best sunscreen has:

  • Broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. SPF, or sun protection factor, refers only to protection from UVB rays; in order to be protected from long-term UVA damage, you need a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB. Look for the words "broad spectrum" on the label, which indicate the presence of both kinds of blockers.
  • Adequate SPF rating. Sunscreens should have an SPF rating of 15 or higher for daily usage and at least 30 for extended periods in the sun. However, you don't need much higher than that: Most experts say that anything more than SPF 50 is overkill.
  • 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. Sunscreen sprays offer the ultimate in ease of use, but 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.
  • 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 4 p.m.

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 all areas of skin that aren't protected by clothing. 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. Chemical ingredients rub in more easily and absorb UV rays, but some groups say the ingredients pose a long-term health risk, and they aren't recommended for babies and kids with sensitive skin. Note that chemical sunscreens are typically easier to find and cheaper than physical formulas, so depending on your location or budget, your choices may be limited.

Do you need water- or sweat-resistance? For a daily sunscreen, comfort and wearability are among the most important factors to consider, but for sports or a day at the beach, water-resistance may trump feel and smell as a priority.

Is the sunscreen for face or body? Delicate facial skin typically requires a more sensitive formula than the rest of your body. However, these formulas can often be far more expensive, so it pays to have one formula for each. You may be better served by a facial moisturizer with an SPF factor 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 thick 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.