The Best Sunscreen

After spending 25 hours on research and interviews, and many more wearing sunscreen on our bodies, we’ve determined that the best sunscreen for everyday use is the one you’ll use correctly. But most people are doing it wrong—which means you probably are, too. According to all seven dermatologists we interviewed, as well as the many scientific papers and lit reviews we read, if you’re outside, you should be applying a full shot glass’s worth of sunscreen to your near-naked body about once an hour in order to get adequate protection with your sunscreen. That’s a lot. Which means the best sunscreen needs to be affordable. Ideally, it should go on easily and feel good against your skin as well. That’s why we recommend NO-AD Sport SPF 50. At 56 cents per ounce, the NO-AD sunscreens cost half as much as their closest competitors. We liked this one best because it has no added fragrance, is water resistant, and consistently placed among the top three during blind application tests by our six-person panel.

Last Updated: May 14, 2016
For this year's update, the only new product that caught our eye was Pure Sun Defense, a sunscreen that is available only at Target and Walmart but is price-competitive with our pick and received a very high score from Consumer Reports (98 out of 100). Although we liked the feel, smell, and price, Pure Sun Defense is neither inexpensive nor ubiquitous enough to unseat our top pick, NO-AD; we've added Pure Sun Defense to the Competition section below.
Expand Most Recent Updates
November 2, 2015: We have updated the section below on "reef-safe" sunscreen, based on a recent study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.
August 12, 2015: After a few questions from readers about "reef-safe" or biodegradable sunscreens, we added a new section below explaining why we don't have a pick in this category.
August 3, 2015: We added Honest Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 to the Competition section. We did not test or consider it while researching our guide, but this sunscreen has recently made headlines due to customer complaints that it is not protecting them from sunburns. See below for the reasons we wouldn't buy it ourselves.
NO-AD Sport SPF 50
NO-AD Sport SPF 50 has all the features you need in a sunscreen at the lowest price: It’s water-resistant, offers broad-spectrum protection, has no added fragrance, and comes in the best format to ensure optimal protection.

NO-AD Sport SPF 50 has a relatively thin texture for its SPF rating, making it among the easiest to apply out of the 13 we tested, and the easiest of the sunscreens that were water-resistant and fragrance-free. It’s water-resistant (not all sunscreens are) for up to 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time a sunscreen can claim to be per FDA guidelines, and fragrance free. 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.

Also Great
Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
This fragrance-free lotion blends into the skin well, but at $1.20 per ounce it costs twice as much as our main pick.

If NO-AD is sold out, we recommend Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30. Like our pick, it’s easy to apply and fragrance-free, was well-liked by our test panel, and has a very similar list of active ingredients. Don’t be deterred by its lower SPF—it’s still effective if applied liberally and reapplied often. The big difference is that it costs twice as much as NO-AD.

Also Great
Ology Sunscreen Lotion
For a physical sunscreen that’s almost totally scent-free but needs to be rubbed in for a bit longer, the Walgreens Ology is a cost-effective pick.

We think most people will be happy with the performance, look, feel, and price of a chemical sunscreen like our pick and runner-up. But whiter zinc oxide and titanium oxide-based physical sunscreens can be good for people who hate the classic smell of sunscreen, prefer a stickier texture, or who want to be able to see where their sunscreen has been applied. If you would prefer a physical formula, we recommend Ology Sunscreen Lotion (Walgreens) SPF 50. This 4 percent zinc oxide formula was the least smelly of all the sunscreens we tested, beating out other fragrance-free sunscreens, like our top pick, in unscented-ness. It went on smoother than others of its kind, and is far less expensive than others we considered, too. If you have a sensitive nose, this will be the best sunscreen for you.

Everything I read and everyone I talked to said that UV radiation—a known carcinogen—is a far more established threat than anything we are currently putting in sunscreen.
If you’re concerned about specific ingredients, keep this in mind: Everything I read and everyone I talked to said that UV radiation—a known carcinogen—is a far more established threat than anything we are currently putting in sunscreen. A formula that encourages frequent and liberal application will serve you better than a high-end sunscreen you try to use sparingly because of cost or chalkiness. NO-AD is a great all-purpose lotion that can be used on the face or body, and like most sunscreens, it’s perfectly safe to use.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

We talked to cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski; Lisa Quale, a health educator at the Skin Cancer Institute at the University of Arizona; and five dermatologists: Rachel Herschenfeld of Dermatology Partners; Steven Wang of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Lindsey Bordone of ColumbiaDoctors; Erin Warshaw, chief of dermatology at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center; and Patricia Treadwell of Indiana University, who specifically works with kids.

We read a lot of academic papers: papers on the risks of feeding the chemicals in sunscreen to rats, papers on how people apply sunscreen (spoiler: poorly), papers comparing ingredients, and review papers.

We also read maybe a dozen sunscreen lists from consumer publications—and then tossed most of them out, because of their utter lack of basis in science.

We hung out in the lotion aisles at drugstores and the sun protection section on Amazon. We did a price, smell, and feel (based on user reviews and ingredients lists) comparison of 50 sunscreens that hit the American Association of Dermatology requirements for a suitable sunscreen lotion.

applying sunscreen

If we can teach you one thing, it is this: You are not putting on enough sunscreen. Jesse Dittmar

Should I switch brands?

Many sunscreens out there will hit our basic requirements. If you have a bottle of something at home, or are fine with the price and feel of whatever you buy normally, you might be fine.

But there are a few big reasons why you might need to consider buying something new, even if it’s just to move back to a lotion after trying an alternative format, like a spray or a stick.

If you are using a sunscreen that is paraben- or oxybenzone-free because you’re concerned about these chemicals, stop letting those be a factor in your decision-making. As we’ll explain in our ingredients section, there’s far too much alarm out there about the supposed harm sunscreens will do to you if you apply it to your skin. We will work through all the reasons why you shouldn’t be worried below. You should be much more worried about the sun exposure that can result from poor and infrequent application.

There’s really no such thing as “sensitive skin” sunscreen, according to  Romanowski and Treadwell, our chemistry expert and one of our dermatologists, respectively. If you have sensitive skin, forget the marketing labels and just pick something without an added fragrance—which can be genuinely irritating. Our experts tell us that all ingredients have the potential to bother someone. “What I tell parents is if they put a sunscreen on and the child turns red without exposure to the sun, then I tell them to avoid that particular sunscreen,” said Treadwell, who sees a lot of child patients with skin issues.

Are you trying to stretch the life of a pricy bottle of fancy sunscreen by applying it in scant amounts? That’s bad: Sunscreen works only when applied often and in large quantities. Consider going through it quickly, and then picking up our price-conscious pick.

Who should buy this?

Everyone. You are getting a fair amount of sun rays “unless you are a spelunker,” said Herschenfeld, one of our dermatology experts. “I put it on every single day. I will leave the house in smelly workout wear, but I never leave the house without my sunscreen.”

The exception: Do not put sunscreen on an infant. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping humans younger than 6 months out of the sun entirely.

Even with everyday use, applying sunscreen doesn’t guarantee perfect protection. You may inevitably miss patches of skin, or sunscreen may dissolve away in your sweat.

Every single dermatologist that I spoke to mentioned that avoiding the sun, in combination with sunscreen, is really the best way to protect yourself. These supplemental methods of sun protection include protective clothing, umbrellas, and the choice to not structure your entire summer around lying out on the beach for hours and hours every single day. When I asked Quale, who works with high-risk skin cancer patients as an educator, how effective sunscreen is at preventing disease, she launched into a spiel on sun abstinence: “Covering up is all around a better protection: There’s no user error.” But when bundling up in the shade is impractical, everyone should be using sunscreen.

The sun isn’t total evil to our skin: It helps us produce vitamin D. According to review papers we read, most people don’t apply sunscreen properly and so not getting vitamin D is not an issue. If it is—you’re going to do a great job of wearing sunscreen, now, right?—you can just take a vitamin. (In fact, when I went to the doctor recently and found out my levels were low, that’s exactly what she recommended.)

When applying hourly isn’t practical

These picks work for most everyday activities that the average person might encounter outdoors. However, if you experience the outdoors in more extreme ways, such as surfing, swimming, or marathon-running, then you may not be able to apply sunscreen at our 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, like a rash guard, shirt and pants, or a wetsuit. These guidelines from the Skin Cancer Foundation on sun-protective clothing are worth reading. 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 and pool guide has a bunch of recommendations for hats.

physical vs. chemical sunscreen

Editor Casey Johnston with a physical sunscreen (left) and a chemical sunscreen (right). Neither has been fully rubbed in yet … Jesse Dittmar

physical vs. chemical sunscreen

… okay, that’s a bit better. She could still have done a better job on the physical sunscreen side, but this is basically representative of the difference in finishes. Jesse Dittmar

How sunscreen works

Along with visible light—the very power of life on our planet—the sun emits UV, or ultraviolet, radiation that is not visible to us. It is bad for your skin. It causes reddening, sunburn, wrinkles, liver spots, skin sagging, and, obviously worst of all, cancer.

Skin cancer is a big problem: Each year in the US, nearly 5 million people are treated for it, with an $8 billion-plus price tag, according to Wang, one of the dermatologists we interviewed. “[And] we’re not even talking about death and psychological trauma.” (Wang’s work, which we consulted for this guide because he writes comprehensive review articles, is not paid for by industry. But he is paid consulting fees from skin care companies to share his expertise.)

You can mitigate all of this by putting on sunscreen, which either absorbs or reflects—more on the difference in a minute—the UV rays before they reach your skin.

Not all sunscreens are created equal, safety-wise.

All sunscreens have a sun protection factor, which you know as SPF. It’s a measure of how well sunscreen protects you against UVB rays. We factored out SPF below 30, the level recommended by the the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), and didn’t focus much on sunscreens much above 30, with a couple of exceptions. There’s not a linear relationship between SPF and protection: SPF 15 filters 93 percent of UVB rays; SPF 30, 97 percent; 50, 98 percent—and nothing blocks 100 percent.

chemical vs. physical sunscreen

A swipe of chemical sunscreen, top, and physical sunscreen, bottom. Jesse Dittmar

chemical vs. physical sunscreen

Rubbing the two sunscreens in… Jesse Dittmar

chemical vs. physical sunscreen

Once rubbed in, it’s difficult to tell the difference, but the physical sunscreen is slightly chalkier looking. Jesse Dittmar

But there’s a point in favor of not getting too carried away: Higher SPF doesn’t pick up the slack for poor application. Some studies have found a non-linear correlation between the amount of sunscreen you apply and the effective SPF. Higher SPF means thicker sunscreen, which is more difficult to apply. Some of our picks are above SPF 30, but that’s because they weren’t available at a lower SPF with the specs we wanted. 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.

Developing good habits will do more to protect most people from the sun than worrying about having a precise amount of SPF.
Another wrinkle: The FDA regulates sunscreens to make sure the makers aren’t lying about the SPF on the bottle. However, in Consumer Reports’s independent lab testing, it claims that the SPF listed is not always accurate. Unfortunately, there is no good additional source on this, so we’re going with what the bottle says. That said, developing good habits will do more to protect most people from the sun than worrying about having a precise amount of SPF.

It’s also critical to have a sunscreen that is labeled “broad spectrum.” This label means the sunscreen has ingredients that protect against both kinds of UV rays, UVA and UVB. UVB causes sunburn, and UVA leads to wrinkles. Both types of radiation can lead to cancer.

While there’s no SPF rating equivalent for UVA rays, a sunscreen that passes the FDA’s broad spectrum test has UVA coverage proportional to its UVB coverage. If a sunscreen has materials in it to protect from UVA rays, it will say “broad spectrum” somewhere on the bottle.

UVB rays cannot go through glass, so if you are inside for most of the day, you’re well protected from those. You are not protected from UVAs, however, just by being indoors, because they are able to penetrate glass.

Dark spots and wrinkles—not to mention cancer, to some extent—are a feature of skin that’s spent years and years soaking up the UVAs that can go through a car or bay window. “Who wants to be wrinkly?” asks dermatologist Bordone, rhetorically. Sunscreen isn’t just important in the short term to protect from sunburn; it’s an investment in the lifelong condition of your skin, and more important, protection against cancer.

Chemical vs. physical sunscreens

There are two main kinds of sunscreen formulas: physical (reflects the beams away) and chemical (a reaction soaks up rays before they hit your skin). There are also combination sunscreens, which have some chemical filters and some physical.1 Chemical sunscreens tend to be greasier, but go on clear. Physical sunscreens tend to be thicker and go on more white.

Of the formulas, cancer educator Quale said: “The only reason to choose one over the other is personal preference.”

Active Ingredient/UV Filter Name Range covered
Avobenzone  UVA1
Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX)  UVA2
Octocrylene  UVB
Oxybenzone  UVB, UVA2
Titanium dioxide  UVB, UVA2
Zinc oxide  UVB, UVA1, UVA2

Physical sunscreens work by deflecting UV rays using the active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, often in tandem.

  • Zinc oxide is a physical blocker that protects against both UVA and UVB. These physical sunscreens tend to make sunscreen whiter. Dermatologists often like zinc because it does a great job protecting against the whole spectrum.
  • Titanium dioxide protects against UVB and some UVA rays (290-340 nanometers).

These also come in “micronized” and “nano” versions, which can go on a little less white and be easier to rub in, especially in sunscreens with a high zinc oxide content. (And don’t be worried about these teeny particles penetrating your skin, as stuff that you put on your skin sometimes does: According to this review article, there is no published evidence that says they’ll do you harm.)

The more expensive physical sunscreens can have a higher zinc oxide content. Higher is better, Quale said, but it also makes you pastier (and can be more expensive). She recommends 5 percent at least (some of our picks have slightly less), but said the most important thing is using enough and reapplying.

Check the ingredients and see if they contain just zinc oxide and titanium dioxide under the “active” list.
Baby sunscreens can be a cost-effective physical option, though they don’t always advertise themselves as “physical”—just check the ingredients and see if they contain just zinc oxide and titanium dioxide under the active list.

Chemical sunscreens, by contrast, work by absorbing the photons of the sun’s rays before they reach your skin; the photons’ energy goes into breaking down those chemicals rather than into your skin. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, and ecamsule are the three main filters. There’s a whole slew that you’ll find on bottles, but these are the big ones.

  • Avobenzone protects against the range of UVA rays that other chemical sunscreen ingredients do not protect against. This is the most common material found in chemical sunscreen for broad spectrum coverage. Studies show that it does just as good of a job at protecting you as zinc oxide does (though in a more limited range of the UV spectrum). It works by breaking down in reaction to light, unlike zinc oxide. However, this shouldn’t matter, as you you should be reapplying either product often anyway. Avobenzone also goes by the name Parsol 1789.
  • Ecamsule is another UVA filter more recently approved by the FDA, and is a less common alternative to avobenzone. It protects against some UVA rays. You need one or the other for broad spectrum coverage. Ecamsule also goes by the name Mexoryl SX.
  • Oxybenzone is a chemical that protects against some of the UVA spectrum that avobenzone does not, and UVB rays. Most chemical sunscreens will have this.

We do not see oxybenzone as a cause for concern.
Some groups—like the Environmental Working Group—see oxybenzone as a cause for concern. We do not. Here’s why some people are worked up about oxybenzone: In an animal study in which researcher fed rats a very high dose of the chemical, they found it accumulated in the livers, kidneys, spleens, and testes of the rats; in female rats, it made their uteruses grow larger. It acts as what’s called an endocrine disruptor—basically, it messes with the hormones in these rats.

And this is why we’re not concerned: According to Wang’s work, you’d have to apply a 4-ounce bottle of sunscreen every week for 70 years to accumulate the equivalent topical exposure as what the rats were fed. Even then, it’s not the same, because in studies on humans, topically applied sunscreen (to the skin, like it’s supposed to) is absorbed—and then flushed out in their pee. However, the rat study also showed that it wasn’t acutely toxic to the rats, which means you’re not gonna die if you ingest a little sunscreen anyway.

So, here’s the take-home lesson from the rat research: Sunscreen is not food.

The EWG has also highlighted allergic reactions as a problem with oxybenzone, but in reading the actual paper, we discovered that these reactions are limited to a small number of people who have a condition called photoallergic contact dermatitis. In the study, only a quarter of people with this condition reacted to oxybenzone. If you have this condition you likely already know, but if you do and need to avoid oxybenzone for this reason, you can use our physical sunscreen pick.

Every single expert I spoke to and every review paper I read (of course, we don’t know every single thing there is to know about it) very clearly concluded that there is no realistic reason to worry about slathering yourself with oxybenzone. While studies often raise concern about certain materials, it’s important to remember that in assertions of risk, quantity matters. As scientists are fond of pointing out, even water can kill you in high enough doses. The risk of getting cancer via sun rays far outweighs the documented risks posed by the chemical. After all this research, I will continue to use oxybenzone-based sunscreen. I would happily rewind to my babysitting days and slather my most favorite child with oxybenzone-based sunscreen.

All of our experts agreed that you’d be fine with a combination of chemical filters. Studies show that as long as you are applying like you are supposed to, chemical filters can provide good coverage. (And while some doctors we spoke to were keen on physical or combo formulas, the consensus was that having a formula you like, with an adequate SPF, was far more important.)

A note about filters, now that you know what they are: According to Wang, you can’t just look at the ingredients on a sunscreen bottle and figure out how good the protection is. Though experts agreed that zinc and avobenzone were two of the best filters, how well they protect you depends not just on the amount in the sunscreen but the inactive ingredients that make them stick to your skin (and in the case of the avobenzone, prevent it from breaking down). But like SPF ratings, this is another element where reapplying every hour is a smarter approach than relying on some chemical to stick to your skin just a little bit longer.

What else is in there

In addition to the active ingredients, it is important that your sunscreen has a preservative so it’s safe. Otherwise, microbes can grow in it and possibly infect you. (Last year, a bunch of baby sunscreens were recalled because they contained dangerous microbes. The paraben-alternatives used in the sunscreens were not synthetic chemicals, but they were also not effective.)

Parabens are a common kind of preservative, present in some sunscreens and many other things that you buy and slather on your body. Parabens have lately been vilified with repeated rumors saying they can penetrate your skin and encourage cancer growth, or disrupt hormones. A lengthy report from the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concludes that parabens are safe in normal cosmetic use. A 2002 study suggested that they might be harmful to the reproductive systems of rats and is 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, like methylisothiazolinone, as an alternative. “It’s a shame because paraben is a great preservative,” said dermatologist 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 might be the culprit. Most sunscreens, including our picks, still use parabens and avoid this issue.

There’s also other stuff that chemists put in sunscreens to make you buy them.

Some sunscreens boast that they contain antioxidants, which are theoretically nice because they can soak up free radicals. But according to chemist Romanowski, they’re not present in lotions in a quantity that will be at all helpful to you.

Since fragrance can be irritating, and what makes a good fragrance is largely personal, it’s generally a good idea to avoid sunscreens with it. That said, the chemicals themselves in sunscreens still have a scent, so you are not going to find a sunscreen that smells like absolutely nothing.

Features you don’t need

Some sunscreens claim to be water resistant, but no sunscreen is water- or sweatproof. As such, you should never count on sunscreen to stick on your skin after swimming or working out, and you should definitely be reapplying after you do either of those things. Per FDA regulations, sunscreen can only be labeled as water resistant for 80 minutes, at which point, per our hourly application recommendation, you should have reapplied anyway.

You don’t want a sunscreen that’s combined with bug repellent. You need to reapply sunscreen more than you do repellent. Plus, DEET may reduce the SPF of sunscreen.

Sometimes the fancier, more expensive stuff is compelling because it comes in attractive, compact bottles that are easier to carry in a purse or put atop a dresser. We did not factor the bottle volume or shape into our selections, because it’s easy to transfer something like sunscreen to an inexpensive bottle, at a one-time cost. Try our pick for toiletry bottles, the Nalgene travel kit.

If you have sensitive skin, there’s no need to look for formulas marketed as “non-irritating.” Our cosmetic chemist source told us, “every lotion out there has the potential to be irritating to somebody.” In fact, if you have a skin reaction, it’s probably not the sunscreen itself but additives like fragrance or methylisothiazolinone, a preservative.2 We tried to stay away from those as much as possible in testing, and went with fragrance-free picks.

Across the pond, the European Commission has approved many more sunscreen filters that can serve as alternatives. The EU considers sunscreen a cosmetic product, which makes the approval process faster; here, sunscreen is classified as an over-the-counter drug. The very practical reason we didn’t consider imported offerings is because they’re illegal to buy online here. But we also don’t think you need an alternative to oxybenzone-based sunscreens, which is why many people have sought out European sunscreens, and written pieces endorsing them. We considered and rejected all the arguments against chemical sunscreens available in the US, and don’t see a need to break the law to seek alternatives. “We have effective sunscreen ingredients to choose from already,” Quale said.

How we picked

The AAD doesn’t endorse specific sunscreens, they just recommend basic criteria: over SPF 30, broad spectrum, and water resistant. And while we found that some dermatologists have a favorite, we chucked these recommendations on the basis that they ran counter to the advice dispensed by the same dermatologists’ assertions that anything meeting the basic requirements would work just fine. After realizing that sprays aren’t as convenient as they seem, we quickly added another criteria—that our pick had to be a lotion. Sprays need to be rubbed in, can result in patchy application (especially in windy, outdoor conditions), and you can’t measure how much you’ve applied. Every single expert we asked said you can’t just spray your own back and be good to go. Treadwell said they’re easy to inhale, which is not advisable. Sticks and foams also don’t provide great coverage.

We considered a dozen or so lists of best sunscreens—from Good Housekeeping, Cosmo, O magazine, and more —and then tossed most of their wisdom out for featuring sprays, or selections rooted in a fear of chemical sunscreens. Still, we selected a few favorites from these for testing.

After talking to our many experts and reading papers for half a dozen-ish hours, we felt confident that we could choose either a physical or chemical sunscreen.

We started with a list of more than 50 sunscreen lotions that hit the basic AAD requirements. From there, we selected 13 sunscreens to test. We wanted something that was fragrance-free (we were not entirely successful in this: One we tried smelled terrible), had positive reviews (whether from consumers or another reputable publication, such as Consumer Reports) and, most of all, were price conscious. We also threw in two of our personal, pricier favorites, to see how they stacked up: The Neutrogena Dry Touch formula that I (now, having researched all of this) use every day and is popular among the Wirecutter staff, and the EltaMD SPF 50 pick that Wirecutter founder Brian Lam recommended in an earlier version of our beach guide. We made sure each the of basic kinds of formulas were represented: physical, chemical, and combination sunscreens that include both chemical and physical ingredients.

We trusted the SPF on the bottle. The FDA regulates the protection claims that manufacturers make about their sunscreens. While there is evidence that this does not work perfectly, doing our own tests was beyond the scope of this guide. (And wearing sunscreens outside isn’t a good way to empirically test how well one works, as there are so many factors to control for.) That said, Consumer Reports did independent lab testing on our top pick—so we feel very comfortable telling you that it will keep you safe.

However, we found a major factor that we needed to take into account: ease and frequency of application.

an ounce of sunscreen

AAD guidelines dictate that a mostly-naked body (think swimsuit) needs about an ounce of sunscreen per application. Casey Johnston

a (very full) palmful of sunscreen

This is what an ounce of NO AD looks like in a medium-size hand—a (very full) palmful. Casey Johnston

One study shows that people typically use a quarter to one-half as much sunscreen as they need to per application to meet the advertised SPF.
You are almost certainly not using enough sunscreen. One study shows that people typically use a quarter to one-half as much sunscreen as they need to per application to meet the advertised SPF.

To get the SPF listed on the bottle, you need to put 2 mg/cm2 on your skin. That’s around an ounce for your mostly naked body on a beach day (1.5 square meters by 2 mg/cm^2 = 1.05 fluid ounces). The AAD also recommends one shot glass, which is 1 ounce. But that’s just your first application! The AAD suggests reapplying every two hours.

Instead of doing gymnastics with scales and shot glasses, a paper titled Application of sunscreen—theory and reality recommends frequent application as a strategy: Apply your sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside, and then again once an hour, plus every time after you sweat a lot or go in the water. No sunscreen is totally waterproof, and while our pick is water-resistant, it’s better to reapply with another ounce of your sunscreen than play the odds of whether your application was perfect or thorough enough to last through sweating or swimming.

Apply your sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside, and then again once an hour, plus every time after you sweat a lot or go in the water.
Because frequency of application is so crucial to protection, cost per ounce of sunscreen matters: If you are using sunscreen properly, and also not living your life as a mole person, you will be buying a fair amount of sunscreen. From a health perspective, the differences between inexpensive and expensive sunscreens are relatively minor. The cosmetic chemist Romanowski compared sunscreens to aspirin: You can get generic, or Bayer, or whatever, but they are all more or less the same thing. Treadwell, our pediatric dermatologist, echoed the sentiment: “I tell parents that they can buy the generic brands in the store. The expense [of fancy sunscreen] does not make it better.” If you find yourself en route to the beach and in immediate need of a physical sunscreen, go into any drugstore and check out the store-brand physical offerings. They’re not all the same feel-wise, but they do tend to be a solid bet cost-wise.

How we tested

A panel of six people (including me) tried on 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. We looked at the smell, texture, feel of each; and if rubbing it in was a pain, either by taking too long or not being spreadable enough.

sunscreen testing session

A testing session at the Wirecutter office. Jesse Dittmar

sunscreen testing

Jesse Dittmar

sunscreen testing

Jesse Dittmar

sunscreen testing

Jesse Dittmar

Three of us each took two top of the top physical and chemical products home and slathered most of our bodies with them to get a better idea of how they actually felt and smelled in larger quantities, and over longer periods of time.

(Additionally, as a side note, I became obsessive about covering different parts of my body in different sunscreens that we had picked while writing this guide.)

I also incorporated our top pick, as well as a couple others of thicker and smellier consistencies, into my daily makeup routine: The sunscreen that works best for everyone should also be able to work without interfering with a moderate barrage of cosmetics and perfume. All sunscreens that I tried did just fine under layers of tinted moisturizer, blush, and assorted glittery stuff. Scented ones left me, well, kind of scented, which was a minus. On a daily basis, I want to smell like fancy hotel lotion or something by Calvin Klein. But not my sunscreen.

Before a date, I used both of our chemical picks on my body, and then did my usual leaving-the-house-on-a-Friday-night thing. Upon questioning, the date reported that he detected nothing amiss and that I smelled nice.

We found that 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 ones all smelled slightly like glue. But these smells are all fairly subtle, and can be hard to pick up unless you are standing in the sunscreen aisle and doing a careful comparison. We’ve noted in the competition section which sunscreens have a prohibitively strong smell.

Our pick

NO-AD Sport SPF 50
NO-AD Sport SPF 50 has all the features you need in a sunscreen at the lowest price: It’s water-resistant, offers broad-spectrum protection, has no added fragrance, and comes in the best format to ensure optimal protection.

NO-AD Sport SPF 50 chemical sunscreen is the best sunscreen for the most people. It has no added fragrances, its texture made it the easiest to apply of the sunscreens we tested, and at only 56 cents an ounce, it’s far less expensive than almost anything else we could find. It comes in the only format that we feel that we can recommend confidently (lotion!) and hits all of the AAD requirements. Importantly, no one had a single major complaint about it in testing. We found that all three of the NO-AD formulas, including this one, rubbed very in nicely compared to other sunscreens that we tested. Among those three, this was the only one that had zero complaints about the smell. In contrast, several sunscreens we tried were difficult to rub in, or had a fragrance that we hated. It does what a sunscreen is supposed to do, protect you, with little fanfare.

Ology SPF 45, left, and NO-AD Sport SPF 50, right

A dribble of Ology SPF 45, left, and NO-AD Sport SPF 50, right. Marshall Troy

The NO-AD Sport SPF 50 is rated as being water-resistant for 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time that a sunscreen can claim to be water resistant, making it among the most water resistant of all the sunscreens we considered. While you should apply when you get out of the water or stop exercising, you will be have as much protection as a sunscreen can afford you until then. Not everyone swims or exercises in their sunscreen, but most people do sweat, so maximum water resistance is an important factor even in general-purpose use.

Its active ingredients are avobenzone, 2 percent; homosalate, 15 percent; octisalate, 5 percent; and oxybenzone, 5 percent.

Amazon reviewers say: “won’t make me smelly,” “not greasy,” and “simply the best protection for the best price,” and “without a doubt the best and cheapest suntan lotion available.” We agree.

Consumer Reports also gave it high marks (here, subscription needed): “Excellent in overall performance. A recommended sunscreen that is excellent for UVA and UVB protection.” In Consumer Reports’s lab tests, NO-AD Sport SPF 50 met the claims on the bottle, so we feel confident in telling you that you should buy this.

There’s not too much to say about something that quietly does its job and gets out of the way.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

In patch testing on my arm, the NO-AD went on slightly greasy, which made me think I might not like using it on my face. But when I took a bottle home to use it in my daily makeup routine, I found that I didn’t mind it all that much. It left me feeling a little shiny at first but seemed to absorb into my face after a few minutes, and I have somewhat oily skin. Its greasiness is about equal to the Cetaphil moisturizer that I have used every day for several months. When I layered tinted moisturizer and blush and various glittery cosmetics on top of the NO-AD, the combination held up just fine.

The slight sunscreen smell is a little funny when it’s right next to your nostrils, but it went away quickly, and didn’t seem to interfere with my perfume. If you don’t like the sunscreen smell, and don’t mind a different smell, you can try the NO-AD SPF 30 or the 45 (which, like the 50, is slightly thicker than the 30). Those sunscreens smell slightly sweet, which is a dealbreaker for me: They smelled kinda funny under my perfume and made me smell a little perfume-y when I was working out and hadn’t wanted to smell like anything. And one unequivocal bonus: The SPF 30 version goes on a little thinner, so its a little easier to rub in.

The NO-AD bottle is pretty cumbersome. You can solve this by buying a different bottle and just refilling!

Runner-up

Also Great
Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
This fragrance-free lotion blends into the skin well, but at $1.20 per ounce it costs twice as much as our main pick.

If NO-AD is sold out, we recommend Coppertone Oil Free Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 ($10). There’s not much of a difference between it and our pick—it goes on easily, absorbs well, and there’s no added fragrance. (It actually goes on a little more easily because it’s a lower SPF, which won’t particularly matter if you are applying properly.) The big difference: It’s about twice the cost per ounce. But that’s still approximately the same price as many of the competitors. (Also, note that this one is still advertised as “waterproof” in some places, which is totally not allowed because no sunscreen can be waterproof. So despite the claim, reapply after sweating or swimming.)

Its active ingredients are avobenzone, 2 percent; homosalate, 13 percent; octisalate, 5 percent; octocrylene, 2 percent; and oxybenzone, 4 percent.

Also great: a physical sunscreen

Also Great
Ology Sunscreen Lotion
For a physical sunscreen that’s almost totally scent-free but needs to be rubbed in for a bit longer, the Walgreens Ology is a cost-effective pick.

We think most people will do well with our pick, but if you would prefer a physical sunscreen for its lack of “sunscreen” scent, prefer the stickier texture, or don’t mind the chalky coloration on your skin, we recommend Ology Sunscreen Lotion (Walgreens) SPF 50 ($9, $1.12/oz.). Of the five physical and combination sunscreens we tested, Ology was the best because it had pretty much no smell, went on easily, and is half the price compared to others of its (physical) kind. Testers consistently ranked this one in the top two picks for physical or combo sunscreens, saying that it “absorbs nicely,” and “it seemed to rub in the best.” Others in the category were harder to rub in, smelled (usually like glue), and were far were more expensive.

If you are sensitive to the faint sunscreen smell of avobenzone formulas, a physical sunscreen like Ology (or a physical/chemical combination sunscreen) is the way to go. Our self-proclaimed fragrance-hating tester tried this one and the Neutrogena while on an all-day photo shoot on a rooftop. “I have to say that they both wore the same, were the same amount of greasiness for roughly the same amount of time, and absorbed roughly at the same rate,” she reported. “Once slathered all over my body, [the Neutrogena] had an overwhelming fragrance. I was bothered by it.” The Ology, on the other hand, had a “neutral smell” to her nose. In the fragrance-free variety, physical sunscreens smell sort of like glue, not the scent of traditional sunscreen, and they smell less strongly overall than the chemical sunscreens. So, take your scent pick.

Its active ingredients are titanium dioxide, 3.1 percent, and zinc oxide, 4 percent. A physical sunscreen can come with higher concentrations of zinc oxide than Ology’s 4 percent and be protective, but it will also go on whiter. We’re not recommending one with higher-than-normal levels because if you’re using your sunscreen properly you should be getting proper protection anyway.

I found the Ology way too much of a pain to rub in compared with the NO-AD. Another tester said that it’s “really thick and mineral-y.” However, pretty much any physical sunscreen you wear with significant SPF is going to feel thicker than a chemical one. Some of our testers didn’t have trouble with absorption, or found that the texture wasn’t a big enough deterrent to sway them toward a chemical pick (perceived absorption rates are relative). But, out of all the physical sunscreens we tested, Ology proved to be a favorite, even beating out the expensive EltaMD combination physical/chemical formula with some of our testers.

Ology is sold exclusively at Walgreens and can be ordered online.

Face sunscreens

Don’t count on your foundation, powder, bronzer, or other makeup to fully protect you. Sun-protective makeup might not be good enough for your daily routine, depending on what you are using and how much time you spend outside. Many cosmetics that advertise an SPF do not protect against UVA rays. They’re not falsely advertising, but it’s easy for you, the customer, to miss that they don’t have the important “broad spectrum” label. And if they do, they may not have a high enough SPF to meet AAD recommendations.

According to Romanowski, our cosmetic chemist, face sunscreens are often simply body sunscreens repackaged.
We considered including a face sunscreen pick but didn’t. There’s no reason why a “body” sunscreen can’t work on your face, and using a more expensive face sunscreen on your body isn’t the greatest idea (cost!). According to Romanowski, our cosmetic chemist, face sunscreens are often simply body sunscreens repackaged. People’s faces are also wildly different in the way they react to different materials; what is too greasy for one person may be fine for another. We hope to address this separate topic in a future guide.

On that note, there’s one caveat to using our pick on your face: Water-resistant formulas do have more oil; that’s what makes them water resistant, Romanowski said. “Face” sunscreens tend to be formulas with less oil. If you are acne prone, and putting oil on your face is a concern, look into a separate face sunscreen. (When using our pick, a water-resistant formula, I did not notice an uptick in pimples. Your mileage may vary.)

One positive thing you’ll find in hitting the “face” portion of the aisle: more fragrance-free options.

Though I’ll keep buying a different formula for my face, I wouldn’t hesitate to use our pick on my face for a beach day. If you’re in the market for a dedicated face sunscreen, make sure it’s broad spectrum, and SPF 30 or higher.

What about “reef-safe” sunscreens?

A recent study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found through in vitro tests (done in labs, not in the natural environment) that one of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreen, oxybenzone, can be damaging to coral reefs. This finding echoes a 2008 study, which said oxybenzone may cause coral bleaching.

The 2015 study goes on to say that the concentration of oxybenzone in water on beaches where people swim can remain significantly high even dozens of meters from the coast, far enough to reach some coral reefs. The authors also caution that oxybenzone could reach reefs through wastewater systems that vacate off coasts nearby. This information is alarming because coral reefs are a little-understood feature of the ocean that appear sensitive to many elements of human influence, and they are dying quickly in some parts of the world.

We stand by our recommendation that the best way to avoid sun damage, the core goal of sunscreen, is to stay out of the sun, or stay covered up while outside. This is the best method with the least impact on your surrounding ecosystem. If you plan to travel or live near coastal reefs and wear sunscreen, you may impact your environment less by using a physical sunscreen like our pick, Walgreens Ology Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50. (Note that a second study unearthed by our science editor, Leigh Krietsch Boerner, suggests one of the active ingredients in the Ology lotion, titanium dioxide, may also impact the ecosystem, but these correlations are less direct than the 2015 oxybenzone study and have not been replicated.)

Some sunscreens are marketed specifically as “reef-safe” an unregulated term. Some Central American resorts mandate that customers purchase special biodegradable sunscreen based on the idea that regular sunscreen is damaging to coral reefs. A piece from Vice points out that this mandate was previously based on the coral-bleaching study from 2008 linked above.

We do not have a pick for biodegradable sunscreen, and resorts will often sell you whatever they feel is compliant. But Vice echoes our stance: if you’re really worried about coral, the better environmental move is not to encourage resort development in the area near coral reefs by visiting them.

We note that these effects have not been studied in the open ocean, once these compounds have had a chance to dilute. Therefore, there is somewhat less cause for alarm about using sunscreens far away from coral reefs. The good news is that another study from 2010 shows that, with protection, damaged coral reefs can rebound.

The competition

All the sunscreens we tested met our basic safety requirements, so if you find yourself standing in an aisle at a drugstore, you can reach for any of these. Some of the ones we tested we wouldn’t buy at all—we’ve noted those below.

Pure Sun Defense — The Pure Sun Defense formula feels the same as that of our top pick: It rubs in easily with a sheer finish that’s minimally greasy and with a slight sunscreen smell, while offering good protection with an SPF 50 rating and an advertised water resistance of 80 minutes (no sunscreen is waterproof). At 76 cents an ounce (at Target), it’s just slightly more expensive than our top pick. Pure Sun Defense is available exclusively at Target and Walmart, which is a drawback if those stores are not convenient to you; if they are, this sunscreen is a good alternative to our pick. Pure Sun Defense comes only in cartoon-character bottles about half the size of our pick’s bottles, so it fits more easily in a purse or bag and is easier to squeeze, but you’d need to stock up on a few bottles for a beach trip.

CVS Baby Sun Lotion Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 (chemical/physical combination, $9, $1.12/oz.) – All of our testers were pretty neutral on this one. One tester’s succinct comments summed up all of our feelings:  “Smell isn’t offensive. It’s a little sticky. Blends into the skin decently.”

Block up! Sport Sunscreen SPF 50 (chemical, $4, $0.44/oz.) – Also a fine choice. Rubbed in easily, but not as easily as our pick and the other NO-AD formulas.

CVS Clear Zinc Sun Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 50 (chemical/physical combination, $7, $1.75/oz.) – I used to be a lab rat for an archaeologist who spends every June in the Near East on digs, and when I asked her what she wore, she pointed me excitedly to this. (She also wears a hat and loose clothing, since she’s outside all the time.) Our testers didn’t have much to say, in the “no strong feelings are good feelings” sort of way. One reports: “It’s clearly a physical one because it goes on pretty white. But it rubs in pretty nicely and cleanly.” In testing at home, I liked using this one on my face: It was pretty easy to rub in and smelled like absolutely nothing. Plus the little bottle fit nicely on my makeup shelf.

Coppertone Waterbabies Pure and Simple (chemical, $21 for a two-pack, $1.30/oz.) – This one was thick, and took a bit to absorb—but not a prohibitively long time. Some of our testers said this is what they use at home.

NO-AD Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Sunscreen Lotion (chemical, $18 for a two-pack, $0.56/oz.) – When we realized that NO-AD was the winner, price-wise, we wanted to try a few to find the best one. The difference was smell. The Sport lotion is the only NO-AD lotion without added fragrance. This one has an added fragrance that smelled kind of sweet. It’s a slightly thinner version of our top pick, the NO-AD Broad Spectrum SPF 50 sunscreen.

NO-AD Sunscreen Lotion SPF 45 (chemical, $19 for a two-pack, $0.58/oz.) – A slightly thicker version of the SPF 30 version. Also has a fragrance.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 45 (chemical, $13, $2.21/oz.).– This is small enough to toss in a purse, but feeds out of the tube at a pretty slow rate. Despite the marketing, the feel when it dries is not significantly drier than the NO-AD. As one tester said of the Neutrogena sunscreen: “It rubs in nicely, but I don’t really like the smell. I’ve used this one a lot and the smell has actually never bothered me. But after smelling all of the others, the scent on this seemed too strong.”

And here are the ones we wouldn’t buy:

Alba Botanica Very Emollient, Fragrance Free Physical Sunscreen SPF 30 (physical, $9, $2.13/oz.) – We picked this because of the cost, because it was fragrance-free, and because a list of natural (read: physical, and marketed toward the Whole Foods set). New York magazine’s The Cut said that the fragrant version of this could be “your gateway to a more natural lifestyle. Maybe.” Most of our testers did not like it. After patch-testing, one of our guinea pigs reported, “I like that it’s almost odorless, but I don’t like how sticky this is.” She concluded, “I don’t think I’d wear it.”

And when editor Casey Johnston took it home and tried using it on her whole body, she found that the larger application area really brought out it’s not-great qualities. “It really has a gluey smell I don’t like, and it’s pretty thick and hard to spread,” she reports. “Not that I’d never use it in a pinch but if I’d bought it I would not buy it again.”

Other physical picks are better. The only difference is that they have parabens, which as we noted above is not a downside, and are not marketed as “natural.” Poison ivy is natural. Skip this one no matter what.

EltaMD Skincare UV Sport Broad-Spectrum (chemical/physical combination, SPF 50, $28, $3.52/oz.) – An earlier version of our beach guide recommended this sunscreen. In doing our extensive research for this guide, we felt it was probably too expensive but we wanted to give it a fair shot.

Testers liked this one a lot—it uses 9 percent micronized zinc oxide, which cuts down significantly on the white appearance. Though it goes on slightly sticky, in patch-tests on their arms, testers reported that it was easy to rub in. When I tried covering my limbs in it, I got tired before it was all the way rubbed in, though it ended up going from pale to glistening-greasy-clear on its own.

Testers also noted that the application bottle is really nice, but again there was trouble when I tried to use the recommended quantity: I had to pump so many times that the little pump started wheezing. Thankfully, it’s also available in a more convenient tube format. Given that some of our testers picked the less expensive Walgreens in swatch testing, there’s no reason you should be paying so much money for this one.

Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection SPF 50 (chemical, $9, $0.56/oz.) – Consumer Reports gave this one high marks. We did not like the smell and we would not buy it. The smell is a very intense sunscreen smell, so unless you are shopping for sunscreen with the express purpose of inducing a scent memory of the beach, neither should you.

Honest Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 (physical, $14, $4.67/oz.) – We did not test or consider this sunscreen while researching our guide, but it has recently made headlines due to customer complaints that it is not protecting skin from sunburns. We would note that at $4.67/ounce, this is very expensive sunscreen, which might discourage the frequent and liberal application needed for adequate protection. This formula’s only active ingredient is a 9.3% concentration of zinc oxide, which is low for a zinc-only sunscreen (typically those products have concentrations around 20%, as NBC Chicago reported). Honest sunscreen markets itself using meaningless, undefined terms like “safe” and “nontoxic” and “hypoallergenic.” For these reasons, we would not recommend Honest’s product.

Featured photo by Marshall Troy.

Footnotes:

1. Note that the chemical sunscreens are often referred to as “organics” because of the structure of the molecules that compose them. It has nothing to do with the sourcing of their ingredients. And obviously, the physical ones also contain chemicals. They are often called “mineral” sunscreens, a nod to the kind of chemicals that they contain. Jump back.

2. We covered this in-depth in our laundry detergent guide: “Think you’re allergic to something found in laundry detergent? You’re not. Or most likely not, according to Dr. Erin Warshaw, chief of dermatology at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center and co-director of the Occupational & Contact Dermatitis Clinic there. What you may have thought was an allergic reaction was probably just irritation instead. ‘An allergic reaction is like poison ivy,’ she said. “So it requires that you are first exposed to a chemical, it takes about three weeks to be sensitized to that chemical, and then upon re-exposure, you develop a very itchy rash that often blisters.” A true allergy to laundry detergent is rare, she said. When an ingredient in laundry detergent does cause an allergy, the usual culprits are fragrances or preservatives, such as methylisothiazolinone, which is more commonly used in liquid detergents.” Jump back.

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Sources

  1. Jansen et al, Photoprotection: Part II. Sunscreen: Development, efficacy, and controversies, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, December 2013
  2. Peterson & Wulf, Application of Sunscreen -- theory and reality, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, January 6, 2014
  3. Wang et al, Safety of Oxybenzone: Putting Numbers Into Perspective, JAMA Dermatology, July 2011
  4. Burnett and Wang, Current sunscreen controversies: a critical review, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, April 2011
  5. Skin Cancer Foundation, Understanding UVA and UVB, SkinCancer.org
  6. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA Sheds Light on Sunscreens, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, February 13, 2015
  7. Melinda Wenner Moyer, When did sunscreen get so complicated?, Slate, June 10, 2013
  8. Perry Romanowski, Cosmetic chemist, Interview
  9. Dr. Rachel Herschenfeld, MD at Dermatology Partners, Inc, Interview
  10. Dr. Steven Wang, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Interview

Originally published: July 12, 2015

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