Stay Safe in the Sun: Top-Rated Sunscreens, and How to Use Them Properly
Last updated July 12, 2023
Sunscreen isn’t just for the beach. You should use it during the day whenever you’re outside for more than a few minutes. Even on cloudy days and during the winter your skin is exposed to the sun’s harmful rays that can damage your skin and cause skin cancer.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the U.S., and melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Nearly 100,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with new cases of melanoma this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 8,000 will die from it.
The Skin Cancer Foundation says a good sunscreen, used properly, can dramatically reduce your skin cancer risk, and lower your chances of getting melanoma by 50 percent.
Any sunscreen is better than none, but you want a product that you know will protect your skin. That’s why Consumer Reports tests sunscreens every year. This year, CR tested 55 lotions and sprays with an SPF of 30 or higher. Based on the results, the editors recommend four sunscreen lotions:
- Coppertone Water Babies Lotion SPF 50 (a perfect score of 100 points, and a CR Smart Buy)
- Everyday Humans Oh My Bod! Lotion SPF 50 (83 points)
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Lotion SPF 60 (73 points)
- Equate (Walmart) Ultra Lotion SPF 50 (68 points)
CR also recommends four spray sunscreens:
- Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50+ (74 points)
- Neutrogena Beach Defense Water + Sun Protection Spray SPF 50 (71 points)
- Black Girl Sunscreen Make It Glow Spray SPF 30 (68 points)
- Sun Bum Premium Spray SPF 50 (67 points)
If you can’t find a product that’s on its recommended list, Trisha Calvo, CR’s deputy health editor, suggests choosing a sunscreen with “chemical active ingredients,” such as avobenzone or oxybenzone, and an SPF of 40 or higher. This will “give you a better chance” of getting adequate protection, Calvo says.
What Do Those SPF Numbers Mean?
SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, indicates how well a product will protect your skin from burning versus not using any sunscreen. These numbers are determined in a lab, and assume the product is being used exactly as directed.
An SPF 30 stops 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays from hitting your skin, an SPF 50 blocks 98 percent, and an SPF 100 stops 99 percent. No sunscreen can provide 100 percent protection.
Products with very high SPFs can create a “false sense of security,” the Skin Cancer Foundation cautions, that encourages people to stay in the sun longer which results in more UV damage.
The SPF number deals with protection from UVB rays, often referred to as the “sun’s burning rays.” It does not provide any information about how well the product stops UVA rays, the ones that cause aging, wrinkles, and other skin damage. That’s why it’s important to choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
Are the Chemicals in Sunscreens Safe?
These days, many of us are trying to avoid chemicals by choosing products that use natural ingredients. But for years Consumer Reports tests have found that sunscreens with chemical ingredients perform better than natural products that use minerals, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Recent research has raised safety questions about some of the chemicals in sunscreen. While approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), research has shown that these chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, get into the bloodstream, and remain in the body for extended periods of time.
“Some of those chemicals may be more worrisome than others,” Calvo noted in her CR story. “Oxybenzone and, to a lesser extent, octinoxate have emerged as the biggest concerns. Preliminary research in animals suggests that Oxybenzone might interfere with hormone production. However, sunscreen research that has been done in humans hasn’t raised any major concerns.”
In 2019, the FDA asked manufacturers for additional safety data on the 12 active sunscreen ingredients currently in use, in order to “fully understand their absorption into the body as well as the long-term effects of absorption.” Without further testing, the FDA said, it does not know what levels of absorption can be considered safe.
The agency noted that “absorption does not equal risk,” and stressed that it has not concluded that any of the chemical ingredients in sunscreens are unsafe. In fact, based on the recognized health benefits of using sunscreen, the FDA “strongly advises all Americans to continue to use sunscreens” in conjunction with other sun protective measures (such as protective clothing), while more research is conducted.
If you are concerned about chemical exposure, there are a couple of things you can do.
“Look for a sunscreen that doesn’t have oxybenzone, which is one of the chemicals in sunscreen that seems to be the most problematic,” Calvo told Checkbook. “And be very careful to cover up, that way you only have to put sunscreen on exposed skin which reduces the amount of sunscreen you're using and therefore the amount of chemicals.”
Another option is to use a natural sunscreen that has titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as active ingredients. The FDA deems both of these minerals safe when used in cosmetics, and they are more reef friendly. Since 2021, Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, which may contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs.
More Info: Destinations Banning Certain Sunscreens
Sunscreen Is for Every Skin Color
When you’re in the sun, you need to wear sunscreen, regardless of your skin color. Compared to Whites, Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics have a much lower incidence of skin cancer because of the extra melanin in their skin. But with enough sun exposure they’re still at risk.
“People of all colors, including those with brown and black skin, get skin cancer,” cautions the American Academy of Dermatology Association. “Even if you never sunburn, you can get skin cancer.”
Unfortunately, when people of color develop skin cancer, it’s often in a late stage when diagnosed, the association noted. “This can be deadly when the person has melanoma, a type of skin cancer that can spread quickly.”
Cancer experts say everyone should take steps to protect their skin. This includes using sunscreen, staying in the shade when the sun is strongest (10am to 4pm), and wearing protective clothing and sunglasses.
Kids and Sunscreen
Sunscreen is recommended for anyone six months and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to keep babies younger than six months out of direct sunlight. They should be in the shade, or under an umbrella or stroller canopy. Parents are also advised to dress babies in lightweight clothing that covers the arms and legs, and use brimmed hats that shade the neck to prevent sunburn.
When adequate clothing and shade are not available, the academy says, parents can apply sunscreen to “small areas of skin that are not covered by clothing and hats—this is because we don’t want babies to sunburn.”
Do you need a special sunscreen made for kids? “Generally speaking, no,” Consumer Reports says. The FDA does not have separate regulations for sunscreen labelled for babies or children. All sunscreen products are required to meet the same criteria for safety and effectiveness. Even so, some sunscreens made for children may use ingredients that are gentler to their skin.
Consumer Reports recommends parents choose lotion sunscreens for kids, and use sprays only as a last resort. Spray lotions can cause lung irritation if inhaled. If you use a spray, squirt some onto your hand, and then apply it to your child’s skin.
Do It Right
To get the maximum protection, buy a good sunscreen and use it properly. Here’s what the American Academy of Dermatology recommends:
- Choose the right sunscreen. Use a product with an SPF of 30 or higher that is water resistant and provides broad-spectrum coverage, which means it protects you from both of the sun’s harmful rays, UVA and UVB.
- Apply sunscreen before going outdoors. It takes 15 to 30 minutes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and protect you. If you wait until you’re in the sun to apply sunscreen, your skin is unprotected and can burn.
- Apply enough sunscreen. Most adults need about one ounce—or enough to fill a shot glass—to fully cover their body. Rub the sunscreen thoroughly into your skin.
- Apply sunscreen to all skin not covered by clothing. Remember your neck, face, ears, legs, and top of your feet. For your back and other hard-to-reach areas, ask someone to help you, or use a spray sunscreen. If you have thinning hair, either apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a wide-brimmed hat. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or immediately after swimming or sweating. People who get burned usually don’t use enough sunscreen, don’t reapply it after being in the sun, or use an expired product. After three years, assume the product will no longer protect you.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.