Types of Sunscreen
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 Ocean Potion. 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, are easy to apply -- and they work better than "natural"
sun blockers like zinc oxide, ConsumerReports.org tests reveal. However, some
have raised concerns about their safety; see below for more information.
sunscreens are advertised specifically for babies and kids. However, the only
differences between these and adult sunscreens are that many (but not all) 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
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
Natural sunscreens, also known as physical
sunscreens, use minerals (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) as their active
ingredients. These minerals form a protective layer on the skin that blocks and
reflects the sun's harmful rays. These are considered "safe"
sunscreens by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which tracks the risks of
skincare ingredients, because they don't penetrate the skin or disrupt hormones
in lab studies. Unfortunately, experts have found that they don't work as well
as chemical sunscreens. Another downside is that physical sunscreens can often
be difficult to rub in, and they sometimes leave a white or greasy residue. Natural
sunscreens aren't as common on store shelves as their chemical counterparts, and
they're often more expensive.
Are sunscreens safe?
Some groups have raised health concerns
about the safety of ingredients commonly used in sunscreens, particularly
chemical sunscreens. Those ingredients include UV filters such as oxybenzone and octinoxate,
synthetic preservatives called parabens, and a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate. Oxybenzone kills coral reefs, research shows, and the U.S. National Park Service urges
people to use non-chemical, "reef friendly" sunscreens.
But whether these ingredients are actually
harmful to humans 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 problems in humans, and the downsides of
not using sunscreens -- including sunburn and an increased risk of cancer --
are well established. If you are still concerned, natural sunscreens, as well
as some sunscreens intended for children, avoid these chemicals in favor of
natural sun blockers. The downside is that these products are generally judged
to be not as effective, and many are relatively pricey.
Finding the Best Sunscreens
To find out which sunscreen protects the
best -- without leaving you looking greasy or ghostly -- we considered both
expert tests and user testimony. We found only one expert review, by
ConsumerReports.org, that tests how well sunscreens actually protect against
UVA and UVB rays. Other hands-on tests judge sunscreens by their look, smell
and texture. User reviews posted at retail websites reveal how easy and
pleasant a sunscreen is to use, and how well it works anecdotally.
users, Ocean Potion Protect and Nourish Lotion SPF 30 is the best choice
Think all SPF 30+ sunscreens work equally well? Think again. When
ConsumerReports.org tested 65 popular sunscreens with SPF ratings of 30 or
better -- including the big name-brand ones you'll see on any drugstore shelf
-- about one in three failed to deliver even half its stated SPF (sun
And SPF only measures protection against UVB rays (the kind that burn
you and cause many skin cancers). There's no law requiring sunscreen labels to
reveal how well they protect against equally damaging UVA rays, and in ConsumerReports.org's tests, eight of the sunscreens managed
only fair or poor UVA protection.
Bottom line? Don't just trust SPF numbers. "If you put too much
faith in them, you could be putting your skin at risk,"
With that information in our back pocket, we found one general-purpose sunscreen
that does everything right: (Est. $8 for 8 oz.).
First, it works: Ocean Potion delivers excellent UVA and very good UVB
protection in tests. It's water-resistant for 80 minutes. It also lives up to SPF
claim. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent of UVB rays. (By the way, higher SPFs don't
protect much better: SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 100 blocks
While Ocean Potion Protect and Nourish is a chemical sunscreen, its
ingredients are considered pretty "safe" by the Environmental Working
Group. This Ocean Potion sunscreen scores a 3 on EWG's 10-point risk scale (1
being the safest). Its active ingredients -- avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene -- all score 4 or lower. It's free of oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate,
the two sunscreen ingredients EWG finds most worrisome.
It's also fairly pleasant to use. Testers say it films the skin lightly
-- no white or greasy residue. The "scent of sunshine" fragrance is
largely a hit, too, with some users describing it as reminiscent of an
orange-vanilla creamsicle. It's a customer favorite
at Amazon.com, earning 4.6 out of 5 stars with 175 reviews posted. Walmart.com
customers love it, too, awarding it 4.4 stars over 30-plus reviews. In fact,
any complaints are usually the retailer's fault (like shipping the wrong item,
or putting annoying stickers on the bottle). Users overwhelmingly love the
Finally, it's not expensive. This is just an added bonus, because Ocean
Potion is the best-reviewed sunscreen we found, period -- at any price. But
it's important, because experts say you need a full ounce of sunscreen (a
generous palmful) to cover your whole body, and you
must reapply every two hours or after swimming. With a reasonably priced
sunscreen, you won't be tempted to skimp.
If you prefer a spray, Banana Boat SunComfort Clear UltraMist Spray SPF 50+ (Est. $8 for 6 oz.)
is your best bet. Like
our top pick, this Banana Boat spray is water-resistant for 80 minutes, and it faithfully
delivers its true SPF, offering excellent protection against both UVA and UVB
rays in tests -- if it's applied correctly.
But that's a big "if." A quick, no-rub spritz won't cut it,
ConsumerReports.org says. You still need to apply a full ounce of sunscreen --
but that can be hard to do with sprays. The wind can blow them away, and it can
be hard to see exactly where or how much you've applied. In addition, spray sunscreens are flammable, even after they've dried on your skin, so must
keep your body away from open flames, sparks and ignition sources, the FDA
warns. In fact, the FDA says people have suffered "significant burns that
required medical treatment" after wearing spray sunscreen near a grill, a
citronella candle and while lighting a cigarette. ConsumerReports.org also recommends
against using spraying sunscreens directly on kids, noting that "The FDA
has said it is exploring the risks of inhaling spray sunscreens."
Still, if a spray sunscreen is right for you, Banana Boat's pina colada-scented spray earns good scores from most
customers at Amazon.com, although a few complain that they got burnt while
using it. We found similar comments at Target.com and Walmart.com (although
reviews there are taken directly from BananaBoat.com).
Among cheap sunscreens, (Est. $9 for 16 oz.) is the longtime cult favorite. Hundreds of devotees at
Amazon.com extol its virtues, and TheSweethome.com awarded it "best
sunscreen" status based on its smell (it's fragrance-free) and non-greasy
feel. It's water-resistant for 80 minutes. EWG grants it a very good score of 3
for safety, even though it does contain the chemical oxybenzone.
However, it falls flat ConsumerReports.org's testing: No-AD Sport Lotion SPF 50 delivers excellent UVA protection, but only
fair UVB protection, and it ekes out less than half of its claimed SPF. TheSweethome.com
notes the findings, and says it'll consider them in its next round of sunscreen
testing, but adds that "For now, NO-AD should still provide protection if
applied liberally and frequently," as the site recommends.
for kids often have gentler formulas
Since kids' skin can be more sensitive to irritating fragrances, the
best kids' sunscreens skip them. Some also ditch the chemical sunscreens for
physical sun blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) -- but unfortunately,
those "natural" sunscreens simply don't protect skin as well from the
sun, ConsumerReports.org finds.
The best kids' sunscreen, according to reviews, is (Est. $6 for 8 oz.), which comes in Star Wars, Frozen, Minions, Captain America and Mickey Mouse varieties (the better to coax impatient kids to sit still for a sunscreen application). It's water-resistant
for 80 minutes, and it's one of only two kids' sunscreens that excels at
shielding skin from UVA and UVB rays in ConsumerReports.org's testing, with true SPF 50 protection.
The other? The nearly identical (Est. $8 for 8 oz.)
. The only differences? Pure Sun Defense costs less (or at least it should if you shop carefully as we saw widely different pricing at different retailers), and it skips the fragrance and parabens that are EWG's main concerns with WaterBabies, which scores a 5 on EWG's 10-point risk scale. Pure Sun Defense hasn't been rated at EWG, however.
Both sunscreens do contain oxybenzone, which is a
chemical of concern at EWG. (Coppertone does have a WaterBabies Pure & Simple Free version without fragrance and parabens, but its
ingredients are completely different, and it's not included in independent
tests for effectiveness.)
Pure Sun Defense is a brand launched by actor Hugh Jackman, who had his
sixth skin cancer removed in 2017. Jackman says he never wore sunscreen growing
up in Australia, and he's on a mission to get kids to wear it. It earns stellar
reviews at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Target.com, although a few say it gave
their sensitive-skinned child a rash.
sunscreens are meant for everyday wear
While other parts of your body usually get some coverage from clothing,
your face is almost always exposed to the sun. With this in mind, sunscreen
manufacturers have made face sunscreens that are thinner and easier to rub in
than regular sunscreens. Many face sunscreens are suitable for daily wear under
makeup, and some double as moisturizers. If you prefer a dedicated facial moisturizer with SPF, we have a separate report with the best
Reviewers say (Est. $30 for 5 oz.) is everything
a face sunscreen should be: effective, lightweight and fragrance-free. It's
water-resistant for 80 minutes, so it's a great choice for the pool or beach,
as well as for every day use.
With outstanding UVA and UVB protection, this sunscreen fully lives up
to its hefty SPF 60 claim -- in fact, it's the only sunscreen to earn a perfect
score in expert testing. Makeup guru Paula Begoun likes the sheer, easy-to-apply fluid and its matte finish. She does knock a
star off of her Beautypedia.com rating, however, saying the sunscreen's
advertised "antioxidant protection" is nearly nonexistent. Otherwise,
"it would have easily made our highest rating for a sunscreen."
Customers award La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk high marks at Ulta.com
(4.7 stars over 30-plus reviews) and Amazon.com (4.6 stars over nearly 180
reviews). Users appreciate that it's truly scent-free, hydrating and velvety,
and it doesn't skin to break out. A few negative reviews complain that the
sunscreen stained their clothing or towels.
However, EWG slaps La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk with a risk rating
of 7 (out of 10). It contains oxybenzone, one of
EWG's top sunscreen chemicals of concern, and EWG cites research that SPFs
above 50 require higher concentrations of chemicals and lull users into a false
sense of sun-security, leading them to linger longer in the sun than they would
A less expensive option, Ocean Potion Face Potion Clear Zinc Oxide SPF 45 (Est. $3 for 1 oz.)
is the darling of customers at Amazon.com (4.7 stars over 180-plus reviews) and
Walmart.com (4.8 stars over more than 50 reviews). It comes in a little 1-ounce
pot, just like the thick, white zinc oxide lifeguards once smeared on their
noses -- but this version goes on clear, with a lotiony texture. It's water-resistant for 80 minutes.
Despite its name, it's not a natural, mineral-only sunscreen. Besides
zinc oxide, it also contains four chemical sunscreens (octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene and oxybenzone), plus parabens. Still, EWG awards it a
relatively low-risk rating of 3 (on a 10-point scale).
The formula is fragrance- and oil-free, and Ocean Potion says it won't
clog pores. Most users agree that it doesn't. However, it gets mixed reviews on
MakeupAlley.com; most users say it works well under makeup and is great for
sensitive skin, while others say it caused skin irritation and break outs.
Natural sunscreens ditch controversial chemical sun blockers
While most experts say there's no reliable evidence that
chemical sun blockers pose health risks for humans, some consumers would rather
not take a chance when there's an alternative. Natural sunscreens use physical
sun blockers -- zinc oxide and titanium dioxide -- that sit on top of the skin
and reflect the sun's rays rather than chemical blockers that absorb them.
These sunscreens are also marketed toward children and people with sensitive
skin, as the ingredients pose less risk of irritation.
The problem? Natural sunscreens simply don't work as well as
chemical sunscreens, ConsumerReports.org has found, year after year. This
year's 65-sunscreen shootout includes 16 physical sunscreens, and none protects
well against both UVA and UVB rays.
(Est. $15 for 5 oz.) isn't included in ConsumerReports.org's test. However, plenty of people swear by it: It enjoys a 4.5-star rating at
Amazon.com (with a whopping 1,150-plus reviews posted), and its 90-plus reviews
at Target.com are nearly all glowing. "Outstanding for use on sensitive
skin of any age," writes Paula Begoun at
Beautypedia.com, awarding it her highest 5-star rating.
Ingredient-wise, this is one of the safest sunscreens you
can buy, according to EWG. Every ingredient -- including the zinc oxide and
titanium dioxide sun-blockers -- is low- or low-moderate risk. It's paraben-
and fragrance-free. Overall, Blue Lizard Sensitive earns the lowest possible
risk rating of 1 (on a 10-point scale).
Like most mineral sunscreens, Blue Lizard Sensitive goes on
pretty thick and white, users say. Most just rub it in until it disappears and
don't mind it -- especially those who use it mostly as a full-body sunscreen.
But at MakeupAlley.com (where users concentrate on face sunscreens, and prefer
them makeup-friendly), Blue Lizard Sensitive proves just too heavy and ghostly for
some reviewers, and several say it clogged pores or irritated their skin. It
earns 3.5 out of 5 stars overall, with almost 50 reviews posted. (We saw similar
comments for Blue Lizard's Baby sunscreen, which is identical to the
Blue Lizard Sensitive is not water-resistant. Blue Lizard
does make two water-resistant versions, Blue Lizard Regular and Blue Lizard
Sport -- but these contain chemical sunscreens, including oxybenzone.
Expert & User Review Sources
ConsumerReports.org is the best source for sunscreen reviews: It's the only
independent source that actually tests how well sunscreens work, and it tests
dozens of popular sunscreens every year (65 this year). The Environmental Working Group rates 883 sunscreens by ingredient safety, giving the highest
marks to non-chemical sunscreens -- but EWG's effectiveness modeling is based
on a sunscreen's ingredient list, not hands-on testing. TheSweethome.com conducts hands-on tests of 13 sunscreens, but only for smell and feel. Paula Begoun (author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter
Without Me") rates more than 400 face/body and water-resistant sunscreens at Beautypedia.com -- again, based on smell, texture and ingredients -- awarding
highest honors to those she says will be the most effective, least irritating
and will live up to their claims. We found plenty of user feedback at MakeupAlley.com, Amazon.com and Ulta.com. Target.com and Walmart.com simply reprint reviews from sunscreen companies' own websites for some brands,
but not all; when the reviews are original to the site, these can be valuable