The Best Sunscreen
Best for Sensitive Skin
Best for Face
Best for Physical Activity
Made up of moisturizing ingredients, this all-around great sunscreen ($7) was smooth in application and offered better coverage than most of the formulas we tested.
Badger contains only a handful of ingredients, reducing potential allergens for those with sensitive skin. It took longer to absorb than the Alba Botanica, and it’s pricier at $16, but it did almost as well in our coverage test.
Priced at $30 for a 1.7-ounce tube, this sunscreen isn’t ideal for full-body coverage, but its lightweight feel and matte finish makes it perfect for use on the face.
Swimming and sweating requires a more waterproof sunscreen, and Badger Sport is designed to be waterproof for up to 80 minutes. It protects against the sun just as well as its lavender-scented counterpart, though it doesn’t absorb into the skin quite as well.
The Best Sunscreen
- Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 -
- Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 -
Best for Sensitive Skin
- MDSolarSciences Mineral Crème Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50 -
Best for Face
- Badger Sport Sunscreen Cream SPF 35 -
Best for Physical Activity
The best sunscreen has an SPF of at least 30 and is labeled both broad spectrum and water-resistant. It should also be in lotion form, 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 finalists with a UV meter to measure coverage. Our favorites work well, smell great, and absorb quickly.
Our top pick, Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30, dominated our hands-on efficacy test. Its lineup of moisturizing ingredients made it silky to apply and quick to absorb, and its scent was subtle. It was also one of the best sunscreens at protecting against UV radiation. ($7)
For those with sensitive skin, Badger Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 ($16) performed almost as well as the Alba Botanica in our coverage test and contains far fewer ingredients — thus fewer potential allergens. One of those ingredients, lavender oil, gives the sunscreen a stronger aroma than our other picks, though it’s hardly unpleasant. The lotion was harder to get out of the tube than the Alba Botanica and took longer to fade on the skin, but it’s still a solid choice as a milder sunscreen.
MDSolarSciences Mineral Creme Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50 is best for use on the face — it's lightweight on the skin and creates a matte finish without leaving a trace of white behind. The catch? At $30 for a 1.7-ounce tube, it’s the most expensive of the lot, so this is best saved for small areas of coverage or on-the-go application.
Badger Sport Sunscreen SPF 35 shares the high quality coverage of its lavender-scented counterpart, though it doesn’t absorb nearly as well. It also doesn’t smell as nice, leaving behind a distinct papery scent. However, it is designed for 80 minutes of sweating and swimming, making it an ideal sunscreen for sports. ($16)
How We Found the Best Sunscreen
We started out by cultivating a list of 135 sunscreens that featured in best-of lists from top beauty magazines and health publications, as well as best-sellers from retailers like Amazon, Sephora, Ulta, and Target. Then we picked the brains of dermatologists and skin cancer experts to dispel myths and demystify ingredients.
We began by cutting any sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of less than 30.
Understanding what SPF truly means involves a little basic math: 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.
Wouldn't SPF 75 protect you even longer?Not really. Properly applied sunscreen requires reapplication every two to three hours, so while the math might dictate that SPF 75 will protect you for 750 minutes of burn-free fun, you can’t actually go 750 minutes without putting it on again, so it’s a bit of a moot point.
“Once you get to SPF 30,” explains Dr. James Worry, a Pittsburgh-based dermatology physician assistant, “there’s no difference beyond [that]. There’s a major difference beyond a 10 or a 15, though.” 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.
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 sunburns, while UVA rays penetrate deeper into the epidermis, where most cases of skin cancer develop. We cut any sunscreen whose SPF (of at least 30) wasn’t also accompanied by the “broad spectrum” label, which covers both UVA and UVB radiation.
We cut any sunscreen that came in the form of a spray or powder.
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.
While powder sunscreen might sit nicely on the face and sprays might provide convenience, the cons outweigh the pros. For starters, it’s harder to ensure you’re getting the right amount of coverage with either a spray or a powder, and not wearing enough renders the SPF pointless. It’s hard to judge how much you’re using when it comes out of an aerosol can. “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.
Even worse, sprays and powders are a little 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 into your lungs. 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. And even 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.” How convenient.
So, goodbye, sprays and powders. You were a good idea, but a bad practice.
We removed any products that contained oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, or octinoxate.
Oxybenzone has long been used in sunscreen as a chemical that effectively absorbs UV radiation, although 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 in particular 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 (also known as Vitamin A palmitate) is known for its antioxidant qualities, not everyone agrees that you should combine it with sun exposure. According to a 2012 report from the governmental National Toxicology Program, retinyl palmitate 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.
We cut any sunscreen that isn't water-resistant.
While a 2011 FDA ruling determined that no product sold in the US can claim to be completely waterproof, certain products can boast water resistance for a limited time during activities like swimming or jogging (basically, anything that makes you break out into a sweat). These products are intended to last longer on the skin in the face of a splash of water or a rivulet of sweat. The specific ingredient attributed to water resistance will vary — it can be a wax, oil, or polymer. To claim water resistance, sunscreens must pass an independent test designed by the FDA to prove they retain their stated SPF.
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.”
However, 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.
Next, we sniffed, slathered, and evaluated coverage.
While our 20 remaining contenders ticked the right boxes and survived our initial cuts, testing them hands-on proved that it’s not enough to look good on paper. We said goodbye to any lotions with unpleasant odors, patchy application, or poor coverage.
We made sure each sunscreen had a pleasant (or non-existent) scent.
The ingredients in sunscreen can stink. Which makes sense — their job is to protect you from harmful rays, not make you smell good. But the scent shouldn’t be a deterrent from you putting it on, either. 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.
Slightly less offensive, and deceptively enticing, was Alba Botanica’s Hawaiian SPF 30 sunscreen, which has a sickly sweet smell like candy-scented body sprays that lingered even after several bouts of soap and water. Initially, Ocean Potion’s Protect + Nourish SPF 30 “Scent of Sunshine” smelled like a melting orange creamsicle, but after about 10 minutes of wear the scent transitioned into something more reminiscent of mothballs.
We favored sunscreens that applied easily and evenly.
How you apply sunscreen is just as important as the type of sunscreen you choose, so it should be easy to slather on evenly, especially since you’ll be reapplying it a lot. While most of the sunscreens we looked at fell somewhere in the middle when it came to consistency, there were a few that stood out for the wrong reasons. Coppertone’s Clearly Sheer SPF 30 was the runniest of the bunch. It felt so thin going on, we were sure it couldn’t possibly 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. Those chunks remained even after vigorous rubbing.
We checked the efficacy of each sunscreen with a UV meter and sun-sensitive paper.
To ensure each sunscreen was actually doing its job, we tested their sun-blocking abilities using a UV meter and a light source designed to output consistent levels of UVA and UVB light. We spread a measured amount of each sunscreen on a clear test surface above our UV meter, then blasted them with light that registered a four on the UV Index scale (a level at which the EPA recommends applying at least SPF 30 sunscreen every two hours). 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 type we used starts out blue and lightens in the sun.) We placed our paper inside of plastic bags, then covered one side of the plastic with each sunscreen. After leaving the bagged paper out in direct sunlight for two minutes, we examined each test sheet — the darker, bluer, and more even the paper was, the better the coverage.
Among the worst: Cotz Sensitive SPF 40, All Terrain Aqua Sport, Ocean Potion SPF 30, Aveeno Natural Protection SPF 50, and Coppertone Clearly Sheer, all of which left patchier, whiter sheets than the frontrunners. The Coppertone, in particular, started noticeably evaporating before we were even finished assembling our test grid, and it left behind a splotchy, inconsistent test sheet.
Several of the top performers, not surprisingly, earned the top spots in our recommendations. Along with great coverage, our favorites offer easy application, gentle aromas, SPF 30 or above, and safe ingredients.
Our Picks for the Best Sunscreen
The $7 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 was almost the same shade as its starting color. Its two active ingredients — zinc oxide (14.5 percent) and titanium dioxide (two 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.
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.
The product is labelled fragrance free, and it certainly lacked the sunscreen-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, and we wouldn’t mind wearing it for a day at the beach.
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 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.” Many Amazon reviewers with sensitive skin praise the product, claiming it’s one of the few that does not cause a rash.
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. It isn’t sticky or hard to apply, either, though 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.
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 Badger also took longer to fully absorb and is slightly more expensive than the Alba Botanica, ringing in at $16.
Beyond that, this sunscreen was one of the most pleasant-smelling sunscreens we tested — the lavender oil not only provides a pleasant aroma, but is also known for its relaxing qualities, so it might just make a lazy day at the beach even better.
MDSolarSciences sunscreen is the most expensive of the lot, with a 1.7-ounce tube priced at $30, but the small tube is perfect for exclusive use on the face and coverage on-the-go. The 17 percent zinc oxide, two percent titanium dioxide formula was thin without being runny, and it absorbed well, leaving zero white residue 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.
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 product is well-loved by consumers, too, with 4.3/5 stars from 195 reviewers on Amazon. Specifically, they note that it’s long-lasting, scentless, and breathable. Though the biggest criticism was a resulting oily complexion, we found it left a matte finish 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.
And though $30 for a bottle is expensive in comparison to our other picks, a little will go a long way — our testers found they could fully cover their face with pea-sized amount. And with its small size, you can take it with you anywhere you go.
For more active endeavors, the $16 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. Since it’s formulated more for heavy-duty wear than casual coverage, it doesn’t absorb as well as its lavender counterpart, and it has a distinct papery smell. But for active summer days, it accomplishes its most important goal — keeping your skin safe.
The 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.
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. Badger Sport is free of damaging ingredients and worthy of its Reef Friendly label.
Expert Tips for Protecting Your Skin
There’s no “best” baby sunscreen.
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.
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? Current research says no. Multiple studies have shown that nanoparticles don’t penetrate the living skin layer. Nanoparticles also 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.
Safe tanning is a myth.
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. 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. Additionally, Dr. Green reminded us to “apply sunscreen to ears and feet. Those are commonly missed places.” The lips are also often neglected when it comes to sun protection — for our recommendation for an SPF-friendly lip balm, check out our review of the Best Lip Balm.