The Best Sunscreen

Fear no sunshine

First and foremost, the best sunscreen should simply work. According to the dermatologists we talked to (and the entire American Academy of Dermatology), it needs to have an SPF of 30 — more is useless; less isn't enough — and should be labeled both broad spectrum and water-resistant. Unfortunately, it shouldn't be a spray or powder; there's no way to know how much of that spray or powder floats away on the breeze. We ousted any harmful ingredients, then tested our finalists' efficacy with a UV meter and consistent application with sun-sensitive paper. The winners not only worked well, but also smelled great and felt great on the skin.

  • June 23, 2017 — In May 2017, Consumer Reports published research suggesting many popular sunscreen brands don’t offer the level of protection advertised on their packaging. Consumer Reports didn’t test most of the specific products we recommend as top picks, but we stand by our own testing process and recommendations.

The Best Sunscreens

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 adequately cover their body.

Turns out the corny sitcoms aren’t wrong about reapplying all the time, either. Using even the most effective sunscreen isn’t a one-off activity — you really do have to ask a friend to help you reapply every two to three hours or anytime you towel off.

With so much reapplying going on, the best sunscreen shouldn’t just work; it should be easy to apply and water-resistant, too. We talked with dermatologists and scoured the web to find the best sunscreens that pack the SPF you need and skip the ingredients that you don’t. Our top pick, Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30, hit every mark and dominated our hands-on efficacy test.

Our Picks for the Best Sunscreen

Best Coverage

Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 This formula took first place in our coverage test — and it went on smooth, absorbed quickly, and had a barely noticeable scent.

The broad spectrum Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 received top marks in our sun-sensitive paper test — it left an even patch of blue paper that was almost the same shade as its starting color. Its two active ingredients — zinc oxide (14.5 percent) and titanium dioxide (2 percent) — are both “classic ingredients that block UVA radiation,” says Dr. Ibrahimi.

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 mostly disappeared with a little gentle rubbing and after about ninety seconds, it was gone completely. Its scent was pleasant too. The slight woodsy smell was so subtle it was hard to detect unless brought directly to your nose, unlike Alba Botanica’s Very Emollient Sport Sunscreen SPF 45, which had a rubbery scent, like a new pencil eraser.

Best for Sensitive Skin

Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 Another top performer in the coverage test. With only a handful of ingredients, it's a great choice for those with sensitive skin.

Badger’s Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 was one of our favorites from the moment we popped it open. The lavender oil not only provides a pleasant aroma; but also is known for its relaxing qualities, so it might just make a lazy day at the beach even better.

Its 18.75 percent zinc oxide formula was one of the best performers on the sun-sensitive paper test, providing an ample amount of coverage. It’s also 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 seabuckthorn fruit extract. If you have sensitive skin, rosacea, or other skin conditions, less is more. “The more extras that are in it,” advises Dr. Worry, “the more likely it is that someone’s going to be allergic to it.” For children and people with sensitive skin, Dr. Ibrahimi also suggests, “Keep it simple.”

While the Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 was one of the thicker lotions we tried, it wasn’t sticky or hard to apply, though it was significantly thicker than the Alba Botanica sunscreen — getting it out of the tube was a bit like squeezing a stress ball. 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.

The FDA doesn’t recommend sunscreen at all for infants under six months (instead, you should just keep them out of the sun). Beyond that, 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.

Other Sunscreen to Consider

MDSolarSciences' SPF 50 Mineral Crème sunscreen is the most expensive of the lot, with a 1.7-ounce tube priced at $30, but there was zero trace of a whitish tint. The 17 percent zinc oxide, 2 percent titanium dioxide formula was thin without being runny and it absorbed well, leaving a pleasant matte finish in its wake. 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, making it a pleasure to use on faces.

Similar to its lavender-scented counterpart, the Badger Sport Sunscreen SPF 35 wasn’t far from snatching a top spot. The 22.5 percent zinc oxide formula finished in the top three of our paper test, proving its high quality of coverage. Since it’s formulated more for surfers and less for running errands, it doesn’t absorb as well as the lavender sunscreen — it took 10 minutes for it to fade. On the plus side, it’s designed to last up to 80 minutes of sweating and swimming. Though advertised as “unscented” it had a distinct papery smell — kind of like a new paperback — that eventually faded but didn’t disappear entirely.

Did You Know?

There’s no need to worry about nanoparticles.

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? The good news is the current research says no. Multiple studies have shown nanoparticles don’t penetrate the living skin layer. It was also found that nanoparticles 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.

There’s no such thing as safe tanning.

One of the sun-exposure myths 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. 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.”

Sunscreen isn’t just a beach necessity.

In his own practice, Dr. Worry told us that he often sees incidences of skin cancer in the left arm, which faces the driver’s side window in American cars. The window glass acts as a magnifier for sunlight, so sunscreen should be applied to any exposed skin during daylight hours. Dr. Green reminded us to also, “Apply sunscreen to ears and feet. Those are commonly missed places.”

The Bottom Line

Our hands-on test showed and our experts agreed — the best sunscreens should be water resistant, broad spectrum lotions with an SPF of at least 30. Bonus points if it leaves your skin feeling great. Regardless of which sunscreen you choose, the two- to three-hour reapplication rule still applies.