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It’s time to bring out the sunscreen. Warmer temperatures mean we are spending more time outside, having fun in the sun with our family and friends.
Consumer Reports tested sunscreens for the SPF, or “sun protection factor,” and the UVA protection. For an effective product, you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen to really protect your skin, which is a relatively new feature of sunscreens as most traditionally only blocked UVB rays.
Sunscreens protect against a broader swath of the UV spectrum, including UVA rays. The Food and Drug Administration requires that a sunscreen labeled as broad-spectrum protects against both UVB and UVA rays. It’s the UVA rays that penetrate deeply into the skin causing damage that can lead to skin cancer and skin aging.
“That’s really what makes a sunscreen better than another,” Consumer Reports health and food deputy editor Trisha Calvo said. “Does it have the SPF protection that you need? Does it have the UVA protection that is more than a pass-fail? The degree of UVA protection is very important, and that’s what we rate the sunscreens on.”
Here are some of Consumer Reports’ top-performing sunscreens in their tests.
Sunscreen can protect your skin from irreversible damage from the sun. Learn more about how sunscreen can protect you and your family.
Best lotion sunscreens
- Equate (Walmart) Ultra Lotion SPF 50Price: $5
- Kiehl’s Activated Sun Protector Lotion SPF 30Price: $32
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Lotion SPF 60Price: $35.99 – $36.99
Best spray sunscreens
- Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear Spray SPF 50Price: $9.48 – $15.99
- Sun Bum Spray SPF 50Price: $15.99 – $23.20
- Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50+Price: $14.10
Shelves of sunscreen for sale at Publix grocery store in Florida.
(Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group / Getty Images)
How sunscreens were tested
Volunteers came into their lab and had sunscreen applied to small areas of their backs. They were asked to soak in water for the amount of time that the sunscreen is supposed to be water-resistant. Small amounts of UV light were then applied to the sections of their backs where the sunscreen was applied, and then they soak in water again.
“They are sent home afterwards, and then the next day, a trained technician examines the skin for redness,” Calvo said. “And that’s how we test for SPF. For the UVA protection, it’s a lab test and a calculation.”
Getting adequate coverage
Any sunscreen is supposed to be reapplied every two hours you’re out in the sun or immediately after you’ve been in water or sweating heavily.
“It doesn’t matter what the SPF is,” Calvo said. “More frequent reapplication prevents the accumulation of the UV rays, and that happens over a lifetime.”
For years, sunscreen manufacturers slapped the words “waterproof” and “sweatproof” on their labels. But in 2011, the FDA put an end to such advertising, claiming that they were exaggerated.
Darly Ortega of New York, left, applies sunscreen on the face of her son Sabatian Ortega, 8, upon arriving to the beach in Hollywood, Florida, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007.
Some sunscreen products today are dubbed “water-resistant,” meaning that they remain effective in the water for 40 minutes. Sunscreens that are called “very water-resistant” provide protection for twice that long in the water.
As for the differences in SPF numbers, there is a big difference between an SPF 15 and an SPF 30, according to Calvo.
“But once you get above 30, the differences are smaller. And it’s the amount of UV light that is screened out by the product,” she said.
For example, an SPF 30 screens out about 95% and an SPF 50 about 97%. Even SPF 100 only screens out 99% of UV light. Nothing screens out 100% of the UV rays, according to Calvo.