Last updated on Nov 21, 2019

The Best Sunscreen

Stay in the sun, safely ​
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How We Found The Best Sunscreens

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4 experts interviewed

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135 Sunscreens researched

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4 top picks

The Best Sunscreens

The best sunscreen has an SPF of at least 30 and is labeled both broad spectrum and water-resistant. It should be a lotion, because there’s no way to know how much spray or powder products actually make it onto your skin. We cut harmful ingredients and tested our 20 finalists with a UV meter to measure coverage. Our favorites work well, smell great, and absorb quickly.

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The 4 Best Sunscreens

    The Best Sunscreens: Summed Up

    Alba Botanica
    Badger
    MDSolar-Sciences
    Badger Sport
    Best Coverage
    Best for Sensitive Skin
    Best for Face
    Best for Physical Activity
    $6.39
    $12.97
    $28.50
    $13.35
    Center>SPF
    30
    30
    50
    35
    Cruelty-free
    Reapply every*
    Two hours
    Two hours
    Two hours
    Two hours
    Contains titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide

    *all four also recommend reapplying right after swimming, sweating, or towel-drying.

    Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen

    Best Coverage
    Alba Botanica

    Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

    Pros

    Even coverage
    Silky texture
    No harmful ingredients

    Cons

    Slight scent

    Why we chose it

    Even coverage

    The broad spectrum Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 received top marks in our sun-sensitive paper test, leaving an even patch of blue paper that indicated its efficiency at blocking rays. Its two active ingredients — zinc oxide (14.5 percent) and titanium dioxide (2 percent) — are both “classic ingredients that block UVA radiation,” according to Dr. Ibrahimi. Because of this, we’re confident that Alba Botanica provides full coverage and essential sun blocking.

    Silky texture

    Of all the Alba Botanica lotions we tested (four total), this one had the silkiest texture; it went on smooth and absorbed quickly. After two hours of wear, even the driest skin we tested still felt comfortably moisturized — not surprising, considering its lineup of moisturizing ingredients including shea butter, jojoba seed oil, and aloe. There was a slight white cast to the skin immediately after application, but it disappeared with a little gentle rubbing, leaving behind a sun-ready glisten.

    No harmful ingredients

    Ingredients like aloe vera, green tea, and chamomile extract are soothing on sensitive skin, and it contains no parabens, phthalates or synthetic fragrances. We also like that Alba Botanica doesn’t do testing on animals, so you can wear it with a clear conscience.

    Points to consider

    Slight scent

    The product is labelled fragrance free, and it certainly lacked the typical tropical scent. There is, however, a distinct natural-product smell, reminiscent of walking through the soap section of a health foods store. It’s subtle, and was hard to detect unless brought directly to your nose — in fact, it was undetectable after just 15 minutes. It was far better than Alba Botanica’s Very Emollient Sport Sunscreen SPF 45, which had a more prominent rubbery, new-pencil-eraser scent. But we wouldn’t mind wearing this one for a day at the beach.

    Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30

    Best for Sensitive Skin
    Badger

    Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30

    Pros

    Limited ingredients
    Ample coverage
    Pleasant scent

    Cons

    Takes work to apply
    Longer to absorb

    Why we chose it

    Limited ingredients

    Badger’s Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 is a great choice for those with sensitive skin because of its limited ingredients. We could count them all on one hand: sunflower seed oil, beeswax, lavender oil, tocopherol (vitamin E), and sea buckthorn fruit extract. If you have sensitive skin, rosacea, or other skin conditions, less is more. Dr. James Worry, a Pittsburgh-based dermatology physician assistant, advised us, “The more extras that are in it, the more likely it is that someone’s going to be allergic to it.” Many Amazon reviewers with sensitive skin praise the product, claiming it’s one of the few that does not cause a rash.

    Ample coverage

    While the Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 was one of the thicker lotions we tried, it’s 18.75 percent zinc oxide formula was one of the best performers on the sun-sensitive paper test, providing an ample amount of coverage.

    Pleasant scent

    Beyond that, this sunscreen was one of the most pleasant-smelling sunscreens we tested — the lavender oil provides a pleasant aroma that we found relaxing, so it might just make a lazy day at the beach even better.

    Points to consider

    Takes work to apply

    Although it isn’t sticky or hard to apply, getting it out of the tube was like squeezing a stress ball. We could see it being difficult to one-hand squeeze while applying, especially as you try to squeeze out the last bits of product.

    Longer to absorb

    Due to the lotion’s thickness, the whitish tint left by the zinc oxide didn’t completely fade after persistent rubbing. After about 10 minutes, it was mostly gone but still visible on medium-toned skin in direct sunlight.

    MDSolarSciences Mineral Crème Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50

    Best for Face
    MDSolarSciences

    MDSolarSciences Mineral Crème Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50

    Pros

    Easy application
    Great reviews
    Matte finish

    Cons

    Pricey

    Why we chose it

    Easy application

    MDSolarSciences applies with more ease than any other product we tested, instantly blending into our skin; even when you’re applying solo, you won’t have to worry about a random streak of white residue you missed near your eyebrow. The 17 percent zinc oxide, two percent titanium dioxide formula was thin without being runny. And while it didn’t perform as highly in our sun-sensitive paper test as some other finalists, it scored points for its gentle and light feel.

    Great reviews

    The product is well-loved by consumers, too, with 4.3/5 stars from 195 reviewers on Amazon. Specifically, they note that the lotion is long-lasting, scentless, and breathable. The biggest criticism was a resulting oily complexion, but we didn’t find that to be true in our own testing. This may be a result of differing skin types, but we’re confident that a little sheen is worth the sun protection.

    Matte finish

    Unlike many sunscreens and lotions, our testers found that this one doesn’t leave your face shiny. In fact, some Amazon reviewers comment on the matte finish it gives to their face, without leaving a trace of white behind.

    Points to consider

    Pricey

    MDSolarSciences sunscreen is the most expensive of our choices, with a 1.7-ounce tube priced at around $30. But a little goes a long way. Our testers discovered that they could fully cover their face with a pea-sized amount. And with its small size, you can take it with you anywhere you go.

    Badger Sport Sunscreen Cream SPF 35

    Best for Physical Activity
    Badger

    Badger Sport Sunscreen Cream SPF 35

    Pros

    High quality coverage
    Gentle on your skin
    Gentle for the environment

    Cons

    Thick

    Why we chose it

    High quality coverage

    For more active endeavors, Badger Sport Sunscreen SPF 35 is designed to last up to 80 minutes of sweating and swimming. The 22.5 percent zinc oxide formula finished in the top three of our paper test, proving its high-quality coverage. Because it’s formulated more for heavy-duty wear than casual coverage, it doesn’t absorb as well as its lavender counterpart. But for active summer days, it accomplishes its most important goal: keeping your skin safe.

    Gentle on your skin

    Badger Sport Sunscreen is unscented and has just five ingredients: zinc oxide, sunflower oil, beeswax, jojoba, and vitamin E. That’s fewer ingredients than our other Badger favorite, just lacking the skin soothing and moisturizing base (aloe and shea butter). Those five ingredients mean that this product will still be gentle on your skin, even if you need that extra water resistance.

    Gentle for the environment

    It’s also gentle on the environment — an especially important feature for sport sunscreens, which are typically used for ocean activities like scuba diving, swimming, or surfing. A lot of sunscreens have toxic and bleaching effects on coral reefs, as the sunscreen seeps off of the skin into the water. Although many claim to be “Reef Safe” or “Reef Friendly,” these labels are unregulated. Badger takes transparency to the next level by detailing the research behind harmful ingredients like oxybenzone and noting the those that are actually safe for the environment. The result? Badger Sport is free of damaging ingredients and worthy of its Reef Friendly label.

    Points to consider

    Thick

    Although the Badger Sport offers high quality coverage, it goes on thick and doesn’t absorb nearly as well. It also doesn’t smell as nice, leaving behind a distinct papery scent. But we think those are small prices to pay for such effective coverage when you’re out being active.

    How We Chose the Best Sunscreens

    Group shot of Sunscreen

    Minimum 30 SPF, with broad-spectrum coverage

    In order to ensure that we were looking only at sunscreens with an adequate amount of protection, we cut any that had an SPF (sun protection factor) of less than 30. Lower numbers may protect somewhat against sunburn, but not against skin cancer or skin aging, according to the American Cancer Society.

    We also required that every sunscreen protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. UVB radiation is responsible for surface damage to the skin, like sunburn, while UVA rays penetrate deeper into the epidermis, where most cases of skin cancer develop. We cut any sunscreen whose SPF wasn’t accompanied by the “broad spectrum” label, which covers both UVA and UVB radiation.

    Lotion only

    Protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays isn’t just about what you put on — it’s about how you put it on, too. According to Dr. Omar Ibrahimi of the Connecticut Skin Institute, “Most people do not apply sufficient amounts of sunscreen to achieve the advertised amount of sun protection.” He suggests the average adult use about a shot glass of sunscreen to cover their body.

    It’s harder to ensure you’re getting the right amount of coverage with either a spray or a powder. “Sunscreen needs to be rubbed into the skin thoroughly, without missing any spots, and spray sunscreens are the worst in this respect. People spray it on their bodies not noticing half of the spray is going everywhere else but on their skin,” says Dr. Lawrence Green, a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at George Washington University.

    No harmful chemicals

    We cut any products with oxybenzone, octinoxate, or retinyl palmitate.

    Oxybenzone effectively absorbs UV radiation, but research has shown that it also absorbs into the skin. Though it — and octinoxate — is currently approved by the FDA for inclusion in topical sunscreens, there are safer, equally effective options out there. Oxybenzone has been reported to cause a high enough rate of allergic reactions to raise a few eyebrows.

    Octinoxate doesn’t carry the same potential risks as oxybenzone, but it does have a higher chance of allergic reactions, even in people without generally sensitive or allergy-prone skin. (Cinnamates, of which octinoxate is one, have been shown to cause the occasional adverse reaction, for example.)

    Retinyl palmitate is more complicated. While retinyl palmitate is known for its antioxidant qualities, according to a 2012 report from the National Toxicology Program, it may actually speed the development of malignant cells when applied right before going out in the sun. However, that study examined only retinyl palmitate, not retinyl palmitate in sunscreen. Scientists say we need more science to determine if it’s still a bad idea in skin products. To be safe, we bid it adieu for now.

    Pleasant or non-existent scent

    As we tested, it was clear that lotions too potent, too sweet, and too chemical were repulsive enough to turn heads; we sought friendly neutrals. Of our contenders, some of the most unnatural included Ocean Potion’s Sport Cooling SPF 50, which contains a “cooling menthol” that smells just like you’d expect — we couldn’t imagine enjoying that cold, medicinal odor wafting off of us poolside. Even worse was Waterman’s SPF 50 Aqua Armor: Not only does it have the consistency of wet cement, but it also smells strongly of bicycle tire.

    Easy, even application

    How you apply sunscreen is just as important as the type of sunscreen you choose, so it should be easy to slather on evenly. Coppertone’s Clearly Sheer SPF 30 was the runniest. It felt so thin going on, we were sure it couldn’t provide significant protection (and when we put it under our UV light, it turned out we were right). But the most disappointing texture belonged to All Terrain’s SPF 30 Aqua Sport, which dribbled out as a combination of clear liquid and solid chunks (a bit like grated horseradish sauce) and made for noticeably uneven application.

    Tested sun-blocking abilities

    To ensure each sunscreen was actually doing its job, we tested sun-blocking abilities using a UV meter and a light source designed to output consistent levels of UVA and UVB light. Impressively, every single one of our finalists did a stellar job blocking harmful rays, knocking the measurements on our UV meter from a four down to a flat zero.

    We also tested for consistent coverage using sun-sensitive paper, which changes color when exposed to UV radiation. The best sunscreens had visible, even coverage.

    Collage of Sunscreen paper test results
    The darker, bluer, and more even the paper was, the better the coverage.
    1. Unprotected control sheet, 2. Beyond Coastal Natural Sunscreen, 3. MDSolarSciences Mineral Crème, 4. Beautycounter Protect All Over, 5. Aveeno Natural Protection, 6. Alba Botanica Hawaiian Aloe Vera, 7. Coppertone CLEARLYSheer, 8. Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sport, 9. Neutrogena Sensitive Skin, 10. Watermans Aqua Armor, 11. Neutrogena Pure and Free Liquid, 12. Ocean Potion Sport Cooling SPF 50, 13. Badger Lavender SPF 30, 14. Ocean Potion Protect and Nourish SPF 30, 15. Cotz Sensitive, 16. All Terrain AqusSport, 17. Banana Boat SPF 30, 18. Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral, 19. Badger Sport SPF 35, 20. Alba Botanica Hawaiian Green Tea, 21. Blue Lizard Australian

    Guide to Sunscreens

    How to find the right sunscreen for you

    Check the SPF

    A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 will protect you from the damaging effects of the sun’s rays for 30 times longer than going without any protection at all. So, if you typically burn after baking in the sun for 10 minutes, a properly applied SPF 30 sunscreen will prevent you from burning for 300 minutes.

    “Once you get to SPF 30,” explains Dr. Worry, “there’s no difference beyond [that].” Additionally, if your complexion is extremely fair, a sunscreen with SPF 15 might not work as well as it would for someone with more melanin in their skin, so 30 is a safer bet.

    Look for water resistance

    While a 2011 FDA ruling determined that no product sold in the U.S. can claim to be completely waterproof, certain products can boast water resistance during activities like swimming or jogging. To claim water resistance, sunscreens must pass an independent test designed by the FDA to prove they retain their stated SPF.

    To minimize the number of applications in any given day, we only looked at sunscreens that provide some water resistance — anywhere from 40 to 80 minutes. But no matter how much water resistance a sunscreen advertises, reapplying is a must. Dr. Green recommends, “If you are outside for a long period of time, I would reapply prior to the time it says on the bottle. And after you come out of the water, reapply no matter what.”

    Consider your complexion

    No matter what your complexion, we recommend sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. But if you are very fair or burn easily, you’ll want to pay more attention to your sunscreen than, say, someone who bronzes like a Greek god after half an hour in the sun. Our experts told us that there isn’t any benefit in going much higher than SPF 30, but the takeaway here for the fair skinned is to be extra diligent in applying sunscreen every two hours — you may want to buy the largest size possible of your chosen sunscreen when you shop.

    Avoid sprays and powders

    There’s a reason all of our top picks are lotions. Sprays and powders are too easy to accidentally put in your body instead of on it. Spray sunscreens have stirred contention for the same reason that powders are largely inadvisable: the risk of inhalation. Just because an ingredient is safe to put on your skin doesn’t mean it’s safe to breathe. Even two of the safest ingredients commonly found in sunscreen — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide — were noted by the Center for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health as inhalation risks. If you do opt for a spray, according to Dr. Ibrahimi, “It would be better to spray the sunscreen onto your hands and then rub onto your face, rather than trying to spray it onto your face directly.”

    Sunscreens FAQ

    What sunscreen is best for my infant?

    The FDA doesn’t recommend sunscreen at all for infants, and all of our experts agreed. Dr. Lela Lankerani, board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology, says, “For any infant under six months of age, it is best to avoid UV exposure and to opt for sun-protective clothing, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats. If that is not possible, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests applying sunscreen to small areas of exposed skin when appropriate clothing and shade are not available.”

    Beyond six months, there’s no real difference between high-quality sunscreen for adults and kids. To minimize the risk of skin irritation, the Mayo Clinic does suggest using a titanium dioxide or zinc oxide-based formula, rather than a chemical-based product — but all of our “adult” top picks fit this bill. We’d suggest an option like Alba Botanica or Badger Lavender. If you have specific concerns, you can also consult your pediatrician for recommendations.

    Should I worry about nanoparticles in sunscreen?

    Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are two of the most protective broad-spectrum ingredients used in sunscreen. In traditional formulas, the large ingredient particles made sunscreens form a thick, white paste — not really the look most of us go for. Newer sunscreens break down those particles into smaller, “nano-sized” ones, decreasing the opacity and giving your skin a much more natural appearance. But can those nanoparticles be absorbed by the skin and harm living skin tissue? Current research says no. Multiple studies have shown that nanoparticles don’t penetrate the living skin layer. They tend to clump together on their own, resulting in not-as-nano-sized particles anyway. So, feel free to slather on the sunscreen — even the ones that aren’t marked non-nano.

    Should I get a base tan before I start using sunscreen?

    One of the sun-exposure misconceptions out there is that a base tan will make your skin hardier for the rest of the summer and less likely to burn. “The base tan idea is just ridiculous,” says Dr. James Worry. “Getting a base tan indoors is the equivalent of about SPF 4, so you’re not giving yourself much protection for the amount of damage you’re doing to your skin long-term.”

    More Skin Care Reviews

    The skin is the largest organ on your body, and it pays to take good care of it. We help you find other products to protect and nourish your skin in these reviews:

    About the Authors

    Danika Miller

    Danika Miller Internet & Entertainment Writer

    Danika Miller has been writing for Reviews.com for three years, where she specializes in streaming, internet, and TV topics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in creative and technical writing from Western Washington University.