Sunscreens are available in a seemingly 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 out 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, though, SPF claims are unrealistic, and the incremental improvement in protection between SPF 50 and SPF 70 is negligible.
With this in mind, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented new sunscreen labeling regulations in 2012. The new rules cracked down on products inaccurately labeled "broad-spectrum" and required that products change their terminology from "waterproof" or "sweatproof" to "water-resistant" or "sweat-resistant."
Consumers may also notice fewer formulas promising astronomically high SPF ratings. The FDA has proposed limiting sunscreens to SPF 50+, but has yet to implement such a requirement. Environmental Working Group also warns that high SPF values don't reflect whether or how well the product protects against UVA rays. The high SPF value may also cause consumers to stay out in the sun longer or reapply less often -- potentially causing more damage than if they'd used a lower SPF sunscreen.
There are two types of skin-damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVB and UVA rays. UVA rays are longer (320 to 400 nanometers) 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 (290 to 320 nanometers) and are the main culprit of sunburns. Unlike UVA rays, the intensity of UVB rays varies by season, location and time of day. In the United States, UVB rays are most intense between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., from April to October. To find the best sunscreens, we looked for products that protected well against both kinds of rays, known as broad-spectrum protection.
Lotions and creams are typically more reliable where protection is concerned. The FDA is still considering whether sprays can truly protect as well, given the differences in how they're applied. We especially looked to reviewers to determine whether spray-on products coated skin evenly for protection equivalent to that of a lotion.
Despite the potentially reduced protection levels, sprays are so much more convenient -- they're faster, they don't require that you get your hands messy and greasy, they can be applied without assistance -- that they may be a good option for someone who wouldn't otherwise apply sunscreen.
A product's ingredients are directly associated with its level of protection. The best formulas should contain broad-spectrum chemical or physical sunscreens, or a combination of the two that block both UVA and UVB rays.
Physical sunscreens are made with minerals (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) that form a natural, protective layer on the skin that blocks the sun's harmful rays. They're often used in natural sunscreens. The downside of these natural ingredients is that they can often be difficult to rub in. Chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, Mexoryl SX and Tinosorb), on the other hand, absorb UV rays, preventing most of them from reaching the skin.
It's important to note that some chemical sunscreens, including the commonly used oxybenzone, don't offer full protection because they can only block a portion of the UVA spectrum. Therefore, there's no single ingredient a sunscreen should have; most mix and match different ingredients to provide broad-spectrum protection, and add in still more to help stabilize the others.
There are also some health concerns around oxybenzone, in particular, as well as several other common cosmetic ingredients that pop up in sunscreen, too. We weigh these concerns against other reviews in determining the best-reviewed sunscreen.
In order to find the best sunscreen formulas, ConsumerSearch analyzes professional reviews from professional tests and considers recommendations from fashion and beauty magazines, which routinely test cosmetics, including sunscreen. User reviews give a great look at real-world use and effectiveness. The result is the best sunscreens for all skin types and lifestyles.