I know the summer is almost over, but many people are choosing August as their month to travel to Europe or further afield to catch some rays and get a tan. But it’s so important to look after your skin when seeking sunlight. We all love that warm feeling of sunlight on our skin, but remember it can be dangerous too.
So when Camilla from reviews.com got in touch with me and told me her team had worked hard to find out exactly which sunscreen was the best, I was intrigued and had to share the results with you to ensure my wonderful readers stayed safe in the sun at all times.
So sit back, have a read, and then get packing your sunscreen with the rest of your beach wear before you head off!
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.
How We Found the Best Sunscreen
We cultivated a list of 135 sunscreens from best-of lists featured in top beauty magazines and health publications; examined best-sellers from your favorite retailers; and picked the brains of dermatologists and skin cancer experts to dispel myths and demystify ingredients. From there, we whittled down the list by requiring a minimum SPF and no harmful ingredients, and dove into rigorous hands- (and nose-) on testing.
Even though our top picks turned out to be all mineral sunscreens, we didn’t automatically exclude chemical sunscreens by design (any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen, after all). What separates mineral products from their chemical counterparts is how they work.
We cut 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.
Now, you might think, “Well, wouldn’t SPF 75 protect me 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,” explained 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.” In other words, if your complexion is extremely fair, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 might not work as well as it would for someone with more melanin in their skin, so 30 is a safer bet in general.
We also required every sunscreen to 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. So, 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.
Sunscreen comes in a variety of forms: the ubiquitous lotion, the slightly less ubiquitous gel, the solid stick, the occasional powder, and the convenient aerosol spray. Sadly, when it comes to achieving maximum efficacy and safety, the method of application has a huge impact.
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. Remember what Dr. Ibrahimi said about needing a shot glass worth of sunscreen? 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. The FDA advises against the use of sprays, especially for children, for the same reason 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 earned enough of a bad reputation that many companies label their sunscreens as “Oxybenzone-Free” right on the box. Though it — and octinoxate — are 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. TheEnvironmental Working Group (EWG) has also reported that it can disrupt estrogen levels in the body, and has been linked to endometriosis in women.
Octinoxate doesn’t appear to be as potentially harmful 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.)
With retinyl palmitate it’s a bit 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. But, that study examined only retinyl palmitate, not retinyl palmitate in sunscreen — to draw the conclusion that retinyl palmitate is still a bad idea even in products protecting our skin from sun, scientists say we need more science. To be safe, we bid it adieu for now.
We cut any sunscreen that wasn’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 instead of washing away with a splash of water or a rivulet of sweat. The sunscreens we looked at advertised water resistance of up to 80 minutes under normal conditions, and some were as low as 40.
A dip in the pool followed by drying off with a towel will obliterate the efficacy of your sunscreen no matter how water resistant it claims to be, so reapplying is a must. As 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. For example, if the sunscreen says water-resistant up to 80 minutes, reapply before the time is up. And, after you come out of the water, reapply no matter what.”
Next, we sniffed, slathered, and evaluated coverage.
While the 20 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, we’ll say, stink. Which makes sense — their job is to protect you from harmful rays, not to make you smell good. But, the scent shouldn’t be a deterrent from you putting it on, either. Some of the worst scent offenders 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, medicine odor wafting off of us poolside, so we cut it. Ocean Potion’s Protect + Nourish SPF 30 “Scent of Sunshine” smelled like a melting orange creamsicle, and after about 10 minutes of wear, the scent transitioned into something a bit more like mothballs. Slightly less offensive was Alba Botanica’s Hawaiian SPF 30 sunscreen, which had a sickly sweet smell that evoked memories of those candy-scented body sprays we all thought were great in middle school (they weren’t) and Beyond Coastal’s SPF 30 Natural Sunscreen, which had a distinct odor reminiscent of old lipstick. The absolute worst offender was Waterman’s SPF 50 Aqua Armor; it not only has the consistency of wet cement, but also features a scent like being hit in the face with a bicycle tire. Even worse, the overwhelming odor lingered even after several bouts of soap and water.
We made sure each sunscreen could be 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 on days with long amounts of sun exposure, 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, with an extremely liquid texture. It felt so thin going on, we were sure it couldn’t possibly provide significant protection (turns 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 rather than rely on unpredictable Seattle sunshine, we used a light source designed to output consistent levels of UVA and UVB light. With just a clear test surface between it and the light source, our UV meter registered a 4 on the UV Index scale (a level at which the EPA recommends applying at least SPF 30 sunscreen every two hours). We then spread a measured amount of each sunscreen on the test surface and placed the meter below. Impressively, every single one of our finalists did a stellar job blocking harmful rays, knocking the UV Index from a 4 down to a flat 0.
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.) After placing sheets of the paper inside plastic bags, we covered one side of the plastic with each sunscreen. Then, we left the bagged paper out in direct sunlight for two minutes (it doesn’t take long for the paper to react). After examining each test sheet — the darker, bluer, and more even the paper was, the better the coverage — we had our final results.
Several of the top performers, not surprisingly, earned the top spots in our recommendations. 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.
Our Picks for the Best Sunscreen
The Best Overall: Abla Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen SPF30
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.
The Best for Sensitive Skin: Badger’s Lavender Sunscreen Cream SPF30
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.
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 — not just at the beach.
The Bottom Line
Our hands-on test showed and our experts agreed — the best sunscreens should be lotions with an SPF of at least 30, that don’t have any harmful ingredients, and are easy to put on evenly.
Do a patch test. If you have sensitive skin, it’s not a bad idea to test it out first; it’s better to have a rash the size of a quarter on your forearm than a rash the size of your entire body.
Apply everywhere. As Dr. Green pointed out, “Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to ears and bare feet. Those are commonly missed places.”
Remember to reapply. Even if you’re not splashing around in the pool or playing volleyball on the beach, the two- to three-hour reapplication rule still applies.
Now that you know which sunscreen is the best, you know exactly how to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. Thanks so much to the team at reviews.com for going through so much hard work and effort to bring us this result!
Now go forth and enjoy your holiday!