After more than 60 hours of research, and many more wearing sunscreen on our bodies, we’ve determined that the best sunscreen for everyday use is the one you’ll apply liberally and often, so it should be inexpensive but still feel good. Most people don’t wear nearly enough sunscreen. That’s why we recommend two affordable, widely available formulas that our test panel liked wearing best: Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70 and No-Ad Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50.
If you prefer using a dedicated face sunscreen, if you’re looking for a reef-safe formula (which contains only physical UV blockers—no chemical filters), or if you need something that won’t stain white clothes, we have picks for you, too. In addition, although we don’t recommend that most people use a spray sunscreen, we do recognize that it’s the best option for some.
Our pick: Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70
Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70 has a thin texture for its SPF rating, making it one of the easiest sunscreens to apply of all those we’ve tested. Coppertone says this formula is water resistant for up to 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time allowed for such a claim per FDA guidelines. At around a dollar per ounce, it feels and smells as good as sunscreens that cost seven times as much, and it comes in a bottle that’s easy to hold, easy to close, and easy to toss in any bag you might carry every day. Unlike many sunscreens we considered and some we tried, it won’t make you look like a ghost or smell like a Bath & Body Works shop. In fact, our testers found it smells like almost nothing.
Type of protection: chemical
Broad spectrum: yes
Price per ounce (at the time of publication): $1
Also great: No-Ad Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50
If you prefer to buy in bulk, consider No-Ad Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50. Like the Coppertone formula, this No-Ad sunscreen is rated to be water resistant for up to 80 minutes, and it has a thin texture and is easy to rub fully in—even for people with significant body hair. Testers found this formula stickier than the Coppertone lotion, however. It comes only in a comparatively large, 16-ounce bottle, which you may find better for storing at home or toting in a large beach bag versus carrying around on a typical day. Members of our test panel found that, like the Coppertone lotion, the No-Ad formula did not leave a white cast and smelled only faintly of sunscreen.
Type of protection: chemical
Broad spectrum: yes
Price per ounce (at the time of publication): $0.56
Also great: CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion SPF 50
We think most people will be happy with the performance, look, feel, and price of a chemical sunscreen like the Coppertone or No-Ad lotion. But whiter zinc oxide and titanium oxide physical sunscreens and combination (physical and chemical) sunscreens are better bets for people who hate the classic smell of sunscreen, prefer a stickier texture, need a formula that won’t stain white clothes, want to be able to see where they’ve applied their sunscreen, or have an allergy to any ingredients commonly found in chemical-only formulas. In these cases, we recommend CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion SPF 50. It’s a zinc-based combination sunscreen that has all the features of a physical sunscreen while being a little easier to rub in than most physical-only formulas. The company says this formula is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. It smells like absolutely nothing. The drawback: It’s usually about twice as expensive as our main pick.
Type of protection: physical and chemical
Broad spectrum: yes
Price per ounce (at the time of publication): $1.75
Also great: Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist Sunscreen SPF 100
Spray sunscreens are deceptively difficult to apply adequately and generally cost around twice as much per ounce as comparable lotions. Still, the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use, so if you or your kid dislikes the application or feel of lotion sunscreens, try Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist Sunscreen SPF 100. Of the three sprays we tested with a panel, it was the only one that everyone said they would buy. (Compared with our lotion picks, when applied properly, all the spray sunscreens we’ve tested—including this one—feel slick and greasy.) Banana Boat says the formula is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. It’s less expensive per ounce than many sprays we considered, and because it produces a more direct stream of mist than others we tried, more of it ends up on your skin if you hold the nozzle close to the surface—assuming you don’t lose much to a breeze. We found that this Banana Boat bottle was the easiest among sprays to hold, even when our hands were sweaty and slippery, thanks to a groove near the top. The formula smells more like sunscreen than the Coppertone or No-Ad lotion (and much more so than the scent-free CVS Health sunscreen).
If you are applying a spray sunscreen correctly, you’ll likely kill a whole bottle in a single beach day just to cover one person. But if it will bridge the gap to proper application, it may be worth the extra cost to you.
Type of protection: chemical
Broad spectrum: yes
Price per ounce (at the time of publication): $1.34
This is the easiest spray to hold and produces the most direct stream.
Why you should trust us
To find the best sunscreens, we talked to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski and to Lisa Quale, a health educator at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. We also consulted five dermatologists: Rachel Herschenfeld of Dermatology Partners in Wellesley, Massachusetts; Steven Wang of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who leads the Skin Cancer Foundation’s photobiology committee; Lindsey Bordone of ColumbiaDoctors; Erin Warshaw, a professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School; and pediatric dermatologist Patricia Treadwell of Indiana University.
We read a lot of scientific papers, including studies on the risks of feeding sunscreen chemicals to rats, investigations on how people apply sunscreen (spoiler: poorly), studies comparing active ingredients, and literature reviews.
We also read through sunscreen reviews from non-academic publications—and then tossed most of them out because of their utter lack of basis in science. Although we previously considered independent SPF testing from Consumer Reports, we’ve concluded that lab simulations can tell us (and regulatory agencies) very little about sunscreen efficacy during real-world use.
Who this is for
Sunscreen is for everyone over 6 months of age, including people with dark skin. (Experts recommend keeping young infants out of the sun altogether; if that’s impossible, using sunscreen is better than not using it.) Applied properly, sunscreen lowers your risk of skin cancer and helps prevent wrinkles; it’s arguably the most effective anti-aging product available. You’re getting hit by a fair amount of the sun’s rays every day, even overcast ones, “unless you are a spelunker,” dermatologist Rachel Herschenfeld told us. “I put it on every single day,” she said. “I will leave the house in smelly workout wear, but I never leave the house without my sunscreen.”
Every single dermatologist we spoke with mentioned that avoiding the sun—plus wearing protective clothing and/or sunscreen when you can’t—is the best way to protect yourself from potentially harmful ultraviolet radiation. When sun abstinence is not an option, covering up is ideal, said cancer educator Lisa Quale: “There’s no user error.”
Because bundling up in the shade isn’t always practical, everyone should be using sunscreen as a second line of defense.
Many sunscreens meet our basic requirements. If you’re satisfied with what you already use, and it’s not past its expiration date, continue using it. Particularly if you have developed an allergic reaction to a given formula in the past, you ultimately know which sunscreen is best for you.
Consider UPF clothing
Our sunscreen picks work for most everyday outdoor activities. If you experience the outdoors in more extreme ways, such as surfing, swimming, or marathon running, you may not be able to apply sunscreen at the recommended frequency (hourly) and in the recommended quantity (1 ounce over your mostly naked body). If that is the case, your better bet for protection is to cover up with clothing such as a rash guard, a shirt and pants, or a wetsuit. The Skin Cancer Foundation offers guidelines on sun-protective clothing; as a rule of thumb, darker, tightly woven clothing is better than lighter-colored material that you can see through. If you need to protect your face, our beach guide and kids beachwear list have several recommendations for hats.
What does SPF mean?
All sunscreens have a sun protection factor, or SPF. It’s a measure of how well sunscreen protects against UVB rays, the type that cause sunburn. The relationship between SPF and protection is not linear: SPF 15 filters 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 filters 97 percent and SPF 50 filters 98 percent. Nothing blocks 100 percent of UVB rays. The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends choosing sunscreens that list a minimum SPF of 30.
It’s also critical to have a sunscreen labeled as broad spectrum. This means the sunscreen has ingredients that protect against both UVB and UVA rays—the latter of which can penetrate glass, and lead to wrinkles. Both types of radiation can lead to cancer. There’s no SPF-rating equivalent for UVA rays (of which there are two types, UVA2 and UVA1, representing different wavelengths), but a sunscreen that passes the FDA’s broad-spectrum test has UVA coverage proportional to its UVB coverage.
You might consider going with an SPF significantly above 30 for another reason. Although the FDA requires that companies prove their sunscreens help prevent sunburn, the manufacturers are ultimately “responsible for ensuring the quality of their products,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email. Your chances of getting an effective SPF above 30 regardless of what the label claims are better if you buy a sunscreen labeled SPF 50 or even 70.
Still, higher SPF doesn’t pick up the slack for poor application. Researchers who reviewed several studies found that there are discrepancies between how much sunscreen volunteers apply in the lab versus how much people use in real-world scenarios, particularly with higher SPF formulas. In an article for The Skin Cancer Foundation, Steven Wang warns against a false sense of safety from super-high SPFs: You can’t put on SPF 100 and then be invincible against the sun forever. An SPF 15 lotion that you apply liberally and often can protect you better than an SPF 50–plus lotion you put on only once in eight hours. (Wang estimates that most people typically apply a third of the sunscreen they need.)
What’s in sunscreen?
You can find two main kinds of sunscreen formulas: physical (reflects rays away from your skin) and chemical (soaks up rays so your skin doesn’t). Some companies also make combination sunscreens, which have some chemical filters and some physical.1 Chemical sunscreens tend to be greasier but go on translucent. Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker and go on whiter. Most combination sunscreens strike a balance between those textures and appearances.
Physical sunscreens deflect UV rays using the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, often in tandem.
• Zinc oxide protects against both UVA and UVB. These blockers tend to make sunscreen whiter. Dermatologists often recommend this active ingredient because it does a great job protecting against the whole spectrum. Look for formulas with 5 percent or more zinc oxide.
• Titanium dioxide protects against UVB and some UVA rays.
These sunscreens also come in “micronized” and “nano” versions, which go on a little less white and can be easier to rub in, especially in formulas with a high zinc oxide content. (Though these teeny particles can penetrate your skin, there is no published evidence that they’ll do you harm.)
The more expensive physical sunscreens can have a higher zinc oxide content. More zinc oxide is more protective, Lisa Quale explained, but it can also go on pastier. “Baby” sunscreens can be cost-effective physical options. (According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, most sunscreens marketed for use on babies are physical formulas—containing zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both—because these are less associated with skin irritation.)
Chemical sunscreens absorb the photons of the sun’s rays before they reach your skin; the photons’ energy goes into breaking down those chemicals rather than into penetrating your skin. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, and ecamsule are the three main filters (PDF). (There are several other active ingredients that work similarly.)
• Avobenzone, like zinc oxide, protects against UVA1—most other UV filters in chemical sunscreens do not. It’s also what causes some sunscreens to stain white and light-colored clothing yellow. According to scientists at Merck, it protects as well as zinc oxide does, though in a more limited range of the UV spectrum. Avobenzone also goes by the name Parsol 1789. Look for formulas containing 3 percent or more avobenzone.
• Oxybenzone protects against a portion of the UVA spectrum that avobenzone does not, plus it protects against UVB rays. Most chemical sunscreen formulas contain oxybenzone. (People who experience photoallergic contact dermatitis may have an allergic reaction to oxybenzone or another sunscreen ingredient. See also “Why is my sunscreen stinging my eyes?”)
• Ecamsule protects against some UVA rays and also goes by the name Mexoryl SX.
• Homosalate protects against some UVB rays.
• Octisalate, or octyl salicylate, protects against UVB radiation.
• Octocrylene protects against UVB and some UVA rays.
In addition to their active ingredients, sunscreens contain a preservative to prevent microbe growth (more on those preservatives below). Some sunscreen makers also boast that their formulas contain antioxidants, which are theoretically nice because they can soak up free radicals that can damage cells, but according to chemist Perry Romanowski, they’re not present in lotions in a quantity that can be helpful to you. Many sunscreens also contain added fragrance. You may want to avoid fragrances as they can be irritating, and what makes a good fragrance is largely personal. That said, the sunscreen chemicals themselves still have a scent, so it’s hard to find a sunscreen that smells like absolutely nothing.
What to avoid
Avoid sunscreen formulas that contain bug repellent. You need to reapply sunscreen more often than you do repellent. Plus, DEET—a common active ingredient in bug repellents, including one we recommend—may reduce the SPF of sunscreen.
If you have sensitive skin, there’s no need to look for formulas advertised as “non-irritating.” As Romanowski told us: “Every lotion out there has the potential to be irritating to somebody.” Keep in mind that “hypoallergenic” is another unsubstantiated marketing term. In fact, if you have a skin reaction, the cause is probably not the UV filter itself but additives such as fragrance or methylisothiazolinone, a preservative.
Are chemical sunscreens safe?
Researchers have long known that some chemical UV filters can reach the bloodstream, and have detected varying amounts of these active ingredients in urine and breast milk. In a May 2019 study, researchers at the FDA confirmed that avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule—four of the most common ingredients in chemical sunscreens and combination formulas—remained in the bloodstreams of 24 adult study participants who were assigned to reapply one of four commercially available sunscreens four times a day for four days in the lab. (The participants were not exposed to the sun for up to seven total days.) In some cases, these active ingredients were still detectable in varying concentrations in the participants’ blood for days after their last application. The researchers write that further studies are needed to determine the clinical significance of this finding and note that their findings to date “do not indicate that individuals should refrain from the use of sunscreen.”
The FDA is working with sunscreen makers to further establish the safety and efficacy of 12 UV filters that have long been approved for sale in the US and remain on store shelves (including those examined in the May 2019 study). In the meantime, the agency says it does not have reason to believe that any of these are unsafe and points to two physical UV blockers—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—as proven safe and effective active ingredients.
Some organizations—including the Environmental Working Group—see oxybenzone in particular as a cause for concern. In a 2001 animal study (PDF), researchers at the University of Zurich fed rats a high dose of oxybenzone and found that it accumulated in the rodents’ livers, kidneys, spleens, and testes; in female rats, the very high dose made their uteruses grow larger. The chemical acted as what’s called an endocrine disruptor—basically, it messed with the hormones in those rats.
Every expert we’ve spoken with and every review paper we’ve read has concluded that, known allergic reactions aside, there is no reason to worry about slathering yourself with oxybenzone. The true take-home lesson from the rat research: Sunscreen is not food. Studies on people have shown that oxybenzone absorbed through the skin flushes out in pee.
Most people are fine with any mix of active ingredients or UV filters. Although some doctors we spoke with said they were keen on physical or combination formulas, the consensus was that having a formula you like, with a listed SPF of 30 or higher, is the most important consideration.
Steven Wang pointed out that you can’t just look at the ingredients on a sunscreen bottle and figure out how good the protection is. Though experts we spoke with agreed that zinc oxide and avobenzone are two of the best UV filters, how well they protect you depends not just on their amount in the sunscreen but also on the inactive ingredients in the formula that help these active ingredients stick to your skin (and for avobenzone, prevent it from breaking down).
Parabens, a common kind of preservative that is present in many sunscreens and other skincare items, have lately been vilified with rumors claiming they can penetrate the skin and encourage cancer growth or disrupt hormones. A 2013 report (PDF) from the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that most parabens are safe for normal cosmetic use. A 2002 study that suggested they might be harmful to the reproductive systems of rats was the source of some paraben fears, but follow-up studies could not confirm the results. According to the American Cancer Society, carefully designed studies on breast cancer and parabens have found no connection.
Paraben fears are causing cosmetic companies to turn to other preservatives, such as methylisothiazolinone, as an alternative. “It’s a shame because paraben is a great preservative,” said dermatologist Erin Warshaw. Very rarely, people can have an allergic reaction to methylisothiazolinone. There’s no need to avoid it, but if you do break out in a rash, this ingredient might be the culprit. (Most sunscreens, including some of our picks, include parabens.)
How we picked
For this guide, we considered lotion and spray sunscreen formulas containing FDA-approved active ingredients that are available for purchase in the US.2 We sought out formulas with listed SPFs of 30 or more that offer broad-spectrum protection and are “water resistant,” per the American Academy of Dermatology’s recommendation.
We debated including sprays because, though their format doesn’t suggest it, they need to be rubbed in; if you don’t rub them in, that can result in patchy application (PDF) especially in windy, outdoor conditions. And with a spray, you can’t measure how much you’ve applied. Although sprays seem to be an appealing option for covering hard-to-reach parts of your body, every single expert we asked said you can’t just spray your own back and be good to go. Pediatric dermatologist Patricia Treadwell noted that spray sunscreens are easy to accidentally inhale, posing a significant health risk. But the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use, and you may find that sprays better fit your needs.
We skipped sunscreen sticks, foams, and powders, as these are less common formats and it can be hard to tell how much to apply.
We looked for lotions and sprays that met the basic AAD requirements, paying special mind to chemical, physical, and combination formulas without added fragrance (a potential skin irritant). This process gave us a list of more than 70 top-rated, best-selling formulas.
How we tested
We’ve tested a total of 42 sunscreens since 2015 (including four “reef-safe” formulas and 10 face sunscreens). We considered but ultimately decided against commissioning an independent lab to assess SPF, broad-spectrum, and water-resistance claims because the results of even the most sophisticated lab tests can’t predict how a given sunscreen performs in the real world, where application amount and frequency matter much more than SPF. Instead, we’ve focused our testing on the factors that affect people’s sunscreen use: Namely, how the formulas feel and smell. For sprays, we also attempted to determine how much sunscreen actually ends up on your skin. (See “What lab testing can (and cannot) reveal about sunscreen efficacy.”)
First, a panel of nine people, myself included, tried the sunscreens in swatches on our arms in a blind test, with the bottles covered in duct tape to avoid the influence of brand names and marketing claims. Members of our panel—which comprised racial and gender diversity, accounting for diverse skin tones and body hair textures—rated the smell, texture, feel, and appearance of each formula, assessing whether rubbing it in was a pain, either by taking too long or by not being spreadable enough.
Three of us then each took the two best-rated physical and chemical sunscreens home and slathered most of our bodies with them to get a better idea of how they felt and smelled in larger quantities and over longer periods of time. We also sent some of our favorite sunscreens with groups of kids and adults going to beaches in Georgia and California to get feedback on how the sunscreens stood up to wind and waves.
Overall, although some were drier than others, we found that most every sunscreen we tested felt somewhat greasy on our skin.3
The chemical sunscreens we tested all smelled at least a little sunscreen-y if they didn’t have some other fragrance added. The physical and combination formulas all smelled slightly like glue. But these scents are all fairly subtle and can be hard to pick up unless you are standing in the sunscreen aisle and doing a careful comparison.
Our pick: Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70
Coppertone Ultra Guard Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70, a chemical sunscreen that earned top marks in our testing, is a great choice for most people. It offers adequate SPF and broad-spectrum protection and is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. It’s easy to apply and comfortable to wear, while still being affordable. It has no added fragrances. Although we could detect a slight sunscreen scent when we first applied it, after it’s been rubbed in, “it doesn’t really smell like anything,” said Wirecutter social media strategy editor Sasha VanHoven, who was a member of our test panel and has been using Coppertone Ultra Guard consistently since. Its texture made it one of the easiest to apply of the sunscreens we tested. And it didn’t turn white when we wore it running, as some sunscreens did.
One Amazon reviewer says: “It didn’t feel overly greasy, and it rubbed in fine, no white residue.” The reviewer concludes that “it does the job it’s intended to do.” We agree.
It comes in a packable, easy-to-grip, 8-ounce bottle with a seal-tight cap.
The active ingredients are avobenzone (3 percent), homosalate (15 percent), octisalate (5 percent), octocrylene (10 percent), and oxybenzone (6 percent).
Also great: No-Ad Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50
No-Ad Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 nearly matched Coppertone Ultra Guard in our feel testing and smell testing, though testers found it stickier. Like Coppertone Ultra Guard, No-Ad Sport is a chemical sunscreen that offers adequate SPF and broad-spectrum protection and is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. It’s easy to apply and mostly comfortable to wear, and it has the lowest price per ounce of any popular formula you can buy. Like Coppertone Ultra Guard, it has no added fragrances, and we found that it doesn’t smell too strongly of sunscreen. “I like this stuff because I don’t notice it at all after I put it on,” said senior editor Liam McCabe, who has been using No-Ad consistently since 2016.
The No-Ad Sport 16-ounce bottle is ideal for certain situations, such as when you anticipate a need for frequent reapplication, like a day at the beach, or if you’re providing sunscreen for a whole family or other group, but it may be too cumbersome for carrying around in a purse or bookbag, say. One solution is to transfer some of the lotion into smaller toiletry bottles.
The lotion has a thin texture for its SPF: It’s runnier than others we’ve tried, making it easier to apply and—sometimes—more of a mess. “Whenever I use it, I inevitably end up with at least a few splashes of sunscreen on the floor,” said editor Tim Barribeau, who has been using No-Ad on and off for more than a year.
The active ingredients are avobenzone (2 percent), homosalate (15 percent), octisalate (5 percent), and oxybenzone (5 percent).
Also great: CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion SPF 50
If you would rather use a combination sunscreen—a formula that contains physical as well as chemical blockers, and is harder to rub in than an all-chemical formula—we recommend CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion SPF 50. Of the nine physical and combination sunscreens we tested, CVS Health Clear Zinc Sun Lotion was one that went on the easiest. Compared with other formulas containing 5 percent zinc oxide, it went on much clearer, too. Others in the category were harder to rub in and appeared chalky, and some were far more expensive.
If you are sensitive to the faint sunscreen smell of most chemical formulas, a physical sunscreen or a combination one, like CVS Health Clear Zinc, is the way to go. Our self-proclaimed fragrance-hating tester preferred sunscreens that were zinc-based, including this one (which some testers said smelled somewhat of glue).
I found CVS Health Clear Zinc too much of a pain to rub in compared with our favorite chemical sunscreens. However, pretty much any physical or combination sunscreen with a significant SPF feels thicker than a chemical one. Some of our testers didn’t have trouble with the absorption of these sunscreens, or they found that the heavier texture wasn’t a big enough deterrent to sway them toward a chemical pick. But of all the zinc-based sunscreens we tested, this one proved to be a favorite, beating out formulas that cost more than twice as much per ounce.
Still, CVS Health Clear Zinc is typically almost twice as expensive per ounce as Coppertone Ultra Guard (and more than three times as expensive as No-Ad Sport).
The active ingredients are octocrylene (4 percent) and zinc oxide (5 percent).
Also great: Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist Sunscreen SPF 100
If you know you’re more likely to use a spray, Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist Sunscreen SPF 100 is the easiest to apply liberally of the nine spray sunscreens we tested. Although most spray sunscreens feel similar, some testers reported liking the feel of the Sport Performance Clear UltraMist formula best for being less greasy than others, and rated its typical sunscreen scent just fine. Banana Boat Sport Performance Clear UltraMist is also less expensive than most other sprays we considered.
The downside of spray sunscreens is that they are quite a bit more expensive than lotions, especially when you consider that some of that spray never reaches your skin. If you’re using a bottle of spray correctly—that is, you’re applying and reapplying the recommended amount and rubbing it into your skin—one person could use up an entire bottle in a single day at the beach.
The Banana Boat spray bottle itself was the best we tested. The nozzle produced a stream of mist that was less aerated and more concentrated than with many of the other sunscreens we tested, meaning more sunscreen should end up on your skin. The bottle has a groove near the top, so it’s easy to hold even when your hands are slippery.
The active ingredients are avobenzone (3 percent), homosalate (10 percent), octisalate (10 percent), octocrylene (10 percent), and oxybenzone (6 percent).
This bottle is the easiest spray to hold and produces the most direct stream.
What lab testing can (and cannot) reveal about sunscreen efficacy
Researchers have lab tests to assess UVB protection (SPF values), UVA protection (broad spectrum), water resistance, contact irritancy, phototoxic reactions, and even how well a given sunscreen sticks to skin following mechanical abrasion (which is meant to mimic the action of toweling off).
The FDA regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter drugs. To obtain marketing approval from the agency, sunscreen makers must submit data showing their products are safe and effective. Among other things, the FDA considers lab data on a given sunscreen’s SPF value, broad-spectrum protection, and water resistance. Labs that test sunscreens recruit volunteers who are exposed to UV radiation from sun lamps while wearing sunscreen and not wearing it (and, in the case of “water-resistant” formulas, wearing these sunscreens before and after water exposure). The FDA requires that these tests be done on at least 10 people. Labs that test sunscreens also examine how the formulas perform when applied to acrylic plates, quantifying the amount of UV radiation that passes through. In all these cases, to achieve accurate test results, the researchers must apply the sunscreens in precise amounts and distribute them uniformly across the test surfaces. This is not how people typically use sunscreen.
The Environmental Working Group and Consumer Reports are two organizations that regularly report findings on, among other things, whether a sunscreen’s SPF matches what’s stated on the bottle. Year after year, they find that some do not. (Rather than commission its own testing of sunscreens, as Consumer Reports does, the EWG analyzes existing sunscreen test data.) But even the best lab-test data reveals little about how people actually use sunscreens—especially when it comes to spray sunscreens.
One of the major pitfalls of sprays is that it’s hard to tell how much sunscreen ends up on your skin. Even sunscreen testing labs don’t actually use the bottles’ spray mechanisms when testing spray sunscreens. “Determining the exact amount of spray product applied to a test site area is virtually impossible,” Sherriel Wallace, the clinical director at Florida Suncare Testing, told us. Instead, the company gets samples of spray sunscreen in liquid form and deposits it onto testers’ skin using a syringe. Dermatologists sometimes recommend applying spray with the nozzle directly against your skin so it comes out as a liquid, which seems to largely defeat the purpose of using a spray.
In 2017, I set out to figure out how much spray sunscreen I’d need to apply to get full coverage when using a spray normally. Sunscreens are tested for their SPF based on weight, 2 mg/cm2, according to Wallace and the FDA. Speaking generously, humans have 2 square meters of skin, which works out to just under an ounce and a half by weight if you’re covering your entire naked body. (Note that the 1-ounce measure for lotion sunscreens is volume—the amount you’d put in a glass—not weight.)
My editor and I devised a contraption to collect all of the liquid coming out of a spray bottle. I placed a sheet of plastic wrap over a plastic bottle, secured it with a rubber band, and poked a hole to place a spray bottle at the top. I did several tests, timing how long I was spraying and then measuring the resulting liquid by volume and weight. I found that spraying a fresh bottle of sunscreen for a minute yields roughly 0.8 ounce by weight, meaning a person would need to spray for about two minutes to cover an entire body—if they lose little to no sunscreen to the air.
To find out how much sunscreen escapes the bottle but doesn’t end up on your skin, I sprayed sunscreen for 30 seconds on a piece of aluminum foil set on a scale and measured how much the weight changed. I did this both with still air and then with a fan going at the equivalent of a light breeze at the beach.
Although spray sunscreen is slicker and thinner than lotion, which you may find more comfortable overall, it isn’t a fundamentally different substance.
With no breeze and spraying as close to the foil as possible, I found that nearly all of the sunscreen transferred to the surface. However, while spraying 4 to 6 inches away—as the bottle often instructed—I easily lost a third of the sunscreen. With a fan going at 7 mph and then at 11 mph, and me spraying as the bottle instructed, I lost more than half the sunscreen to the breeze. The exact amount varied and seemed to depend on how carefully I was pointing the nozzle more than on the speed of the fan. Even if you head to the beach with a wind meter and the best intentions, it’s nearly impossible to tell how much sunscreen you’re losing unless the air is perfectly still.
But if you’re careful about applying spray sunscreen in a windless area, you can get full coverage if you spray for about two minutes close to your body and then rub it in with your hands, which you are supposed to do anyway, according to all bottle instructions. Be wary, too, of bottles that are nearing empty and not spraying continuously. Note that our tests were unscientific and this is a fairly rough estimate, but it provides at least a workable rule of thumb that leaves a person safely covered in the sun.
How much sunscreen should I use?
To get the SPF listed on the bottle, you need to put 2 mg/cm2 on your skin. That means the average-size adult needs roughly a shot glass’s worth (1 ounce) of sunscreen for their mostly naked body (excluding areas swimwear typically covers). So, as you may have just concluded, you are almost certainly not using enough sunscreen. A 2014 study showed that people typically use a quarter to half as much sunscreen as they need to per application to meet the advertised SPF.
Spray sunscreens are trickier, as it’s hard to tell how much ends up on your skin, but if you’re headed to the beach in a bikini or similar, we’ve found that spraying the sunscreen close to your body (not the 4 to 6 inches that most bottles recommend) for roughly two minutes in a windless—but well-ventilated—area should do the trick.
Apply your sunscreen at least 15 minutes before sun exposure, since it takes that long for the formula to fully sink into your skin, and then again once every hour (or two hours, per the AAD), plus every time after you work up a sweat or go in the water.
A note about water resistance: Some sunscreen makers claim their formulas are water resistant, but no sunscreen is waterproof or sweatproof. As such, you should never count on sunscreen to stick to your skin after you’ve gone for a swim or worked out, and you should definitely reapply after you do either of those things. Per FDA regulations, sunscreen can be labeled as water resistant for only up to 80 minutes, by which point you likely should have reapplied anyway.
Do I need a face sunscreen?
There’s no reason a body sunscreen can’t work on your face. Face sunscreens are often simply body sunscreens repackaged, according to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. But people’s faces are also wildly different in the way they react to different substances; what is too greasy for one person may be fine for another.
If you don’t want to spend the extra cash on a specific face lotion, keep in mind this one caveat to using our top body pick on your face: Water-resistant formulas contain more oil. That’s what makes them water resistant, Romanowski said. Face sunscreens tend to be formulated with less oil. We recommend Kiss My Face’s Face Factor Sunscreen SPF 30 as a non-greasy, mostly scent-free option in our guide to face sunscreens, but we wouldn’t hesitate to use our top-pick body sunscreen on our faces for a beach day. No matter what you use, keep in mind that your level of protection depends on how much and how often you apply.
And if you wear makeup, don’t count on foundation, powder, bronzer, or other cosmetics to fully protect your face. Sun-protective makeup might not be good enough for your daily routine, depending on what you’re using and how much time you spend outside. Many cosmetics that advertise an SPF do not protect against UVA rays. That isn’t a matter of false advertising; it’s simply easy for you to miss the fact that they don’t have the important “broad spectrum” label. Even if a certain cosmetic does have such labeling, it may not have a high enough SPF to meet AAD recommendations (30 or higher).
What about “reef-safe” sunscreens?
Several sunscreen ingredients, including some in our main picks, can harm corals and other sea life when used in large quantities. Although there’s no sunscreen that has been proven totally “reef-safe”—an unregulated term—physical formulas that use non-nano zinc and titanium to block UV rays are better for minimizing your impact on wildlife. After testing four such lotions for our guide to reef-safe sunscreen, we recommend Thinksport SPF 50+.
Does sunscreen expire?
Don’t hoard sunscreen: It breaks down over time. Most bottles are labeled with an expiration date that’s a year or two from when you buy it. If yours has no date, the Mayo Clinic recommends tossing it after three years. And know that keeping your sunscreen in the car, or in direct sun at the beach, may make it deteriorate faster.
Why is my sunscreen stinging my eyes?
No matter how hard you try to avoid getting sunscreen near your eyes, it’s practically inevitable that a bit of sunscreen will eventually seep in there. And it can really sting. Most commonly, certain ingredients found in chemical sunscreens are to blame (oxybenzone or avobenzone are the usual suspects). Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—two active ingredients found in physical sunscreens—are less likely to irritate your eyes. Face sunscreens are generally formulated to be less greasy and are therefore less likely to reach your eyes after you sweat or swim, but they’re not fail-safe. “If you get sunscreen in your eye, it’s not dangerous, but you should flush the eye with water as soon as you can,” pediatric dermatologist Susan Boiko writes in a Skin Cancer Foundation blog post.
Why is my sunscreen staining my clothes?
Sunscreen causing yellow stains on light-colored clothing is a common gripe. Nearly every chemical sunscreen for sale has the potential to cause staining, especially if you live in an area with hard water. A reaction between avobenzone and iron creates the stain, which is actually rust.
If you have trouble with sunscreen stains, consider wearing darker clothing to the beach, or switching to a mineral-based sunscreen. If you want to give up neither your white swimsuit nor your easy-to-apply sunscreen, Jolie Kerr, professional Clean Person, recommends a remover that can handle them, Carbona Stain Devils #9 Rust & Perspiration. Kerr also suggests going with a lotion sunscreen versus a spray one—it’s easier to avoid getting lotion on your clothing during application.
Sunscreen and Vitamin D
Sunshine is a vital component of the chemical reaction that drives vitamin D synthesis in the human body. Vitamin D is essential for health, and wearing sunscreen—which deflects or absorbs the sun’s rays—significantly reduces the body’s ability to make it. Along with eating fortified foods or taking supplements, getting 15 minutes of sun exposure is usually enough for most people to make sufficient vitamin D.4 But dermatologists recommend covering up or using sunscreen whenever you may be exposed to the sun, so finding a balance between protecting your skin and getting enough vitamin D can be confusing. Because every person’s situation is unique, it’s best to discuss this topic with your doctor.
What to look forward to
In future updates to this guide, we will consider stick and foam sunscreens, which we’ve previously dismissed.
Members of our test panel found Coppertone WaterBabies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, a chemical sunscreen, easy to apply and wear, but noted that the flowery scent of this formula isn’t for everyone. If Coppertone UltraGuard is unavailable, this is a similar alternative.
Coppertone WaterBabies Pure & Simple SPF 50, a combination sunscreen lotion, felt thick and took a while to fully absorb into our skin—but not a prohibitively long time. Some panelists preferred this avobenzone-free formula.
No-Ad Kids SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion, a chemical sunscreen, has the same active ingredients as No-Ad Sport SPF 50 but smells sweeter.
No-Ad SPF 30 Sunscreen Lotion, a chemical sunscreen lotion, absorbs well and is easy to rub in. It has an added fragrance that smells kind of sweet. (No-Ad SPF 45 Sunscreen Lotion is a slightly thicker version.)
For a drier-feeling spray, consider Neutrogena Beach Defense Sunscreen Spray SPF 70. It’s generally pricier than the Banana Boat spray we recommend, but members of our test panel found that this chemical formula smelled more sweet than sunscreen-y.
Panelists were split on CVS Health Baby Sun Lotion SPF 50, a combination sunscreen lotion. One tester noted that the “smell isn’t offensive.” The tester continued, “It’s a little sticky [and it] blends into the skin decently.”
We found that Fruit of the Earth Block Up Sport Sunscreen SPF 50 rubbed in easily, but not as easily as our other chemical sunscreen lotion picks.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 45 comes in a bottle that’s small enough to toss in a purse, but the lotion feeds out of the tube at a slow rate. Despite the marketing, the feel was not significantly drier than that of other sunscreens we tried. As one tester said of this chemical sunscreen: “It rubs in nicely, but I don’t really like the smell.… After smelling all of the others, the scent on this seemed too strong.”
The spray we found easiest to apply properly, Goddess Garden Organics Kids Natural Sunscreen SPF 30, is a physical sunscreen that isn’t aerosolized; rather, it’s a lotion that squirts out in little blobs. If you are sensitive to oxybenzone or concerned about stains but still want a spray, this is a good choice. However, our testers reported that it was hard to rub in. If you don’t spray close enough to your body, you can easily end up with blobs of sunscreen all over your belongings.
Babyganics Sunscreen Spray SPF 50 is another non-aerosol spray that testers reported was hard to rub in. Once this physical sunscreen was on, it felt a little sticky.
Most panelists disliked the scent of Neutrogena CoolDry Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70, a chemical sunscreen lotion. Some said it smelled too much like men’s deodorant.
Most panelists also disliked the sweet scent of Banana Boat SunComfort Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, another chemical sunscreen lotion, although one beach tester reported that—true to a claim on the bottle—this formula did seem to repel sand. (We found that the chemical-formula Banana Boat Dry Balance Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 smelled just as sweet, though we did not test it at the beach.)
The cap on the bottle of Pure Sun Defense Sunscreen Spray SPF 50, a chemical sunscreen, gave us significant trouble. It was tough to click shut.
Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Sunscreen SPF 70, a chemical spray sunscreen, comes in a bottle that’s smaller than the competition (5 ounces versus the typical 8), meaning you’d probably have to carry more than one bottle with you for a beach day.
La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Sunscreen Milk SPF 60 is a much-revered chemical sunscreen lotion. Per ounce, it tends to cost more than 10 times as much as our pick. In a practical sense, each hour spent wearing this formula costs a few dollars.
We eliminated one chemical sunscreen lotion, Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30, early on in our testing because of its bottle. With one drop on the floor, the pump broke, making it difficult to use.
Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 contains no added fragrance and is generally less expensive compared with other physical sunscreen lotions we considered. Most of our panelists did not like it. One reported: “I like that it’s almost odorless, but I don’t like how sticky this is.”
Panelists generally liked EltaMD UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50, a combination sunscreen lotion, rating its feel and appearance highly. It costs four times as much per ounce as the CVS Health Clear Zinc lotion.
Members of our panel unanimously disliked the intense sunscreen-y smell of Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, a chemical sunscreen lotion.
Tracy Vence contributed reporting to this guide.
1. Chemical sunscreens are often referred to as “organics” because of the structures of the molecules that compose them. It has nothing to do with the sourcing of their ingredients. Physical sunscreens also contain chemicals. Those formulas are often called “mineral” sunscreens, a nod to the kind of chemicals they contain. Jump back.
2. Regulatory agencies in Canada and elsewhere in the world have approved many more UV filters. The EU considers sunscreen a cosmetic product. Here in the US, sunscreen is classified as an over-the-counter drug. Jump back.
3. This was true of formulas advertised as “dry,” too. We tried several. Although some of these sunscreens felt a bit more matte in careful, side-by-side testing compared with sunscreens not labeled “dry,” our panelists and field testers noted no textural difference in blind and not-blind tests. Jump back.
1. Rebecca Jansen MD, et al., Photoprotection: Part II. Sunscreen: Development, efficacy, and controversies, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, December 1, 2013
2. Peterson B, Wulf HC, Application of sunscreen–theory and reality, Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, January 6, 2014
3. Steven Q. Wang, MD, Mark E. Burnett, BS, Henry W. Lim, MD, Safety of Oxybenzone: Putting Numbers Into Perspective, JAMA Dermatology, July 1, 2011
4. Burnett ME, Wang SQ, Current sunscreen controversies: a critical review, Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, April 1, 2011
5. UVA & UVB, The Skin Cancer Foundation, May 24, 2013
6. Melinda Wenner Moyer, When Did Sunscreen Get So Complicated?, Slate, June 10, 2013
7. Perry Romanowski, cosmetic chemist, phone interview
8. Lisa Quale, health educator at the Skin Cancer Institute at the University of Arizona, phone interview
9. Dr. Rachel Herschenfeld, doctor at Dermatology Partners, phone interview
10. Dr. Steven Wang, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, phone interview
Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.