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Consumer Reports: It's sunscreen time! So which ones work best?

Make smart choices with CR's annual sun protection product ratings

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Chances are, you will soon be picking up some sunscreen. Americans bought 69% of the 150 million total products sold in 2018 between late April and mid-August, according to market research firm IRI.

Dermatologists always say that the best sunscreen is the one you’ll use -- but how do you choose?

Consumer Reports’ annual sunscreen ratings help you find a product that appeals to you and provides superior protection against sunburn, skin cancer and wrinkles.

This year, CR's ratings include dozens of lotions, sprays and sticks. Ten of them received an Overall Score of Excellent and are CR’s recommended products. Another 36 earned a Very Good score and are acceptable choices. See below for reviews of six of the best sunscreens in CR's 2019 tests, covering lotion, spray and mineral sunscreens, as well as sunscreens without oxybenzone.

How CR tests sunscreens

CR uses a testing protocol that is modeled on the one the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires sunscreen manufacturers to use. But as is the case with other products CR tests that have government or industry standards, CR uses those standards as benchmarks and develops its own methodology to identify differences in performance and give consumers a comparative evaluation.

“We buy the sunscreens for our tests off the shelf, the way consumers would,” says Susan Booth, the project leader for CR's sunscreen testing. “We use three samples, preferably with different lot numbers, of each product.”

WATCH: Consumer Reports debunks 5 sunscreen myths

All of the products are sent to a lab and tested for SPF, variation from SPF, and ultraviolet A (UVA) protection. SPF stands for sun protection factor and is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects against sunburn, which is mostly the result of exposure to the sun’s UVB rays.

To check for SPF, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to a 2x3-inch rectangle on panelists’ backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, smaller sections of that area are exposed to five to six intensities of UV light from a sun simulator for a set time. About a day later, a trained technician examines the areas for redness. The resulting SPF ratings—Excellent to Poor—reflect each product’s actual effectiveness after water immersion and are based on an average of CR's results for each sunscreen. CR also calculates a score for variation from SPF. This is a measure of how closely a sunscreen’s tested SPF matched the SPF on the label.

In order to be labeled broad spectrum, the FDA requires that a sunscreen protect against UVB and UVA rays. UVA rays are those that penetrate deeply into the skin and cause damage that can lead to skin cancer and skin aging.

To test for UVA protection, CR smears sunscreen on plastic plates, pass UV light through, and measure the amount of UVA and UVB rays that are absorbed. That information is then used to calculate CR's UVA score.

This test is similar to the critical wavelength test the FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to do in order to label their products broad spectrum. This is a pass/fail test, and just as you can pass a test with either an A or a D grade, some sunscreens do a much better job of defending against UVA than others. That’s why, for our ratings, we also use a test that allows us to measure the degree of UVA protection a sunscreen provides. 

Finding a sunscreen you’ll want to use

For many people, the way a sunscreen smells and feels on their skin is as important as the UV protection it provides. So in addition to CR's performance tests, trained sensory panelists also evaluate sunscreens for scent and feel. The sensory testing isn’t factored into CR's Overall Score—what people prefer is subjective, so CR can’t say, for instance, whether a sunscreen that has a tropical aroma is better than one with a classic beachy aroma. But CR's panelists objectively describe the scent and feel of every sunscreen tested so that you can pick the best sunscreen for you.

CR also includes the price per container and the price per ounce so that you can weigh all the factors when you’re choosing a sunscreen. The prices of the products in this year’s ratings range from 44 cents per ounce to $12.12 per ounce.

Another consideration is fabric staining. Most of the products that CR tested note on the label that they may stain. For the products in the tests that don’t carry a warning, CR checked to see whether they stain cotton and polyester. CR does this every year, and the results have been consistent: Even if a product doesn’t say it may stain, in CR's tests, it stains one or more of the tested fabrics. The best protection against staining is to allow your sunscreen to dry on your skin after application before putting on your clothes.

Best lotion sunscreens

It’s easier to make sure you’re getting adequate coverage with a lotion than with a spray because you can see how much you’re applying. You need about an ounce of lotion to cover your body when you’re in a bathing suit. That’s about the amount you'd get in a shot glass. Or if you prefer, think about it as a teaspoon per body part or area: one teaspoon for your face, head, and neck; one for each arm; one for each leg; one for your chest and abdomen; and one for your back and the back of your neck.

  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 melt-in sunscreen milk sunscreens: $36
  • BullFrog Land Sport Quik Gel SPF 50 sunscreens: $13

Best spray sunscreens

CR's tests found that if you apply it properly, you can cover your skin adequately with a spray in one pass, but proper application isn’t always easy, especially when it’s windy. Oftentimes you end up protecting the air more than your skin. The proper way to use a spray is to hold the nozzle close to your skin and spray until your skin glistens, and then rub it in. Do this even if a spray is labeled “no-rub;” smoothing it into skin increases its protection. Then repeat, just to be safe. Never spray your face because you could get it in your eyes or inhale it. Instead, spray the sunscreen into your hands and rub it onto your face.

Consumer Reports recommends using sprays on kids only as a last resort—they are more likely to inhale the ingredients, which could cause lung irritation. If you must use a spray, spray it into your hands and rub it onto your child’s skin. And sprays can be flammable when they are wet, so be sure to keep yourself and kids away from any heat source—such as a grill—until the product is thoroughly dry on the skin.

  • Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+ sunscreens: $6
  • Banana Boat SunComfort Clear UltraMist Spray SPF 50+ sunscreens: $13

Best sunscreens without oxybenzone

Recently, the FDA asked sunscreen manufacturers to provide additional safety information on 12 common sunscreen chemical active ingredients, including oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene. The FDA is not saying these ingredients are unsafe, nor is it recommending that you not use sunscreens that contain them.

But of the 12 chemical active ingredients the agency wants more data on, oxybenzone is potentially the most concerning. There is research to show that it may be absorbed through the skin more than previously thought. Studies in animals suggest that it may interfere with the function of hormones in the body, such as estrogen, and for this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that parents may want to consider using an oxybenzone-free sunscreen on their children. However, there’s currently no research to prove adverse effects of oxybenzone in people. Some research suggests that oxybenzone may be harmful to coral reefs.

All of CR’s recommended sunscreens contain oxybenzone.

“While we recognize there are concerns with oxybenzone, we know that sunscreen is a critical part of an overall sun protection plan,” says Don Huber, director of product safety at Consumer Reports. “It’s proven to prevent sunburn, and can lower your risk of skin cancer and reduce skin aging, and our testing is based on a product’s ability to filter UV rays.”

But, if you prefer to avoid oxybenzone, there are nine lotions without it that received Very Good Overall Scores in CR's ratings.

  • Walgreens Hydrating Lotion SPF 50 sunscreens: $3
  • Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Ultra Radiance Lotion SPF 50 sunscreens: $8

Best mineral sunscreens

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide -- so-called mineral or natural sunscreens -- are two active ingredients that the FDA says do not need additional safety data. However, year after year in CR's tests, the sunscreens that contain only one or both of these as active ingredients do not perform as well as the ones that contain chemical active ingredients. Some provide adequate SPF protection but not enough UVA protection, or vice versa. But if you are concerned about chemical exposure and prefer to use a mineral sunscreen, a few mineral products in our tests received Good Overall Scores.

A final important note: you shouldn’t rely only on sunscreen to keep you safe from the sun. It should be part of an overall approach to sun protection that includes covering up with clothing, wearing a hat and sunglasses, and staying in the shade or indoors when the sun’s rays are the strongest, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

  • California Kids #supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+ sunscreens: $20
  • Badger Active Natural Mineral Cream SPF 30 unscented sunscreens: $16