We know we need to protect ourselves from the sun's harmful rays, but choosing the right kind of sunscreen from the sea of products on the market can be a bit overwhelming. The $5 billion industry holds a spectrum of sun care products at various price points that researchers say aren't always effective. In fact, the Environmental Working Group's 2011 survey of more than 1,700 sunscreens gave only one in five high marks for safety and efficacy.
Determined to find out just how consumers should evaluate sunscreens and which ones offered the most value, we went to the experts at both Consumer Reports and GoodGuide.com. Both publications have recently done extensive research, comparing numerous brands, and it turns out that the higher the price or SPF doesn't necessarily mean a better sunscreen.
At Consumer Reports, researchers surveyed 22 brands in an external lab, testing them for protection against both UVA and UVB rays and water resistance. Topping the list was the SPF-45 No-Ad sunblock with aloe and vitamin E. It was also the least expensive sunscreen in the test, at just 59-cents per ounce. No-Ad was the top pick from CR because it offered dependable broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and was very water-resistant. Equate Baby SPF 50 tied for second place at 63 cents per ounce. Also high on the list and low on price was Target's Up and Up spray at 88 cents per ounce.
Interestingly enough, Consumer Reports' most expensive tested brand, La Roche-Posay, which runs more than $18 per ounce, scored well below many cheaper brands. La Roche-Posay does not claim to be water-resistant at all, and it has the potential to stain.
At GoodGuide.com, scientists ran similar tests but also based their rankings on health and safety. They examined more than 1,300 sun care products, and for two of their favorites, they selected the SPF 30 Badger Unscented Natural Sunscreen at $14 per bottle and Burts' Bees Chemical Free Sunscreen SPF 30 for $10 per bottle. The Badger cream was found to have absolutely no ingredients that would cause a health concern— along with providing broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection. Some of GoodGuide's picks were more expensive than Consumer Reports' top winners, but those were specifically selected chemical-free brands.
Some sunscreen tips from all the experts we spoke to, including Dr. David Colbert, founder of the New York Dermatology Group, include:
• Choose sunscreen with at least SPF 30, but don't splurge for anything that's much higher. New FDA regulations are, in fact, limiting the maximum SPF to 50+ since there's not enough proof SPFs beyond that number provide greater protection.
• Application is key. Reapply at least every two hours and always after swimming or sweating.
• The proper application amount for exposed skin is about one ounce, or one shot glass full of liquid sunscreen.
• Consider using a sunscreen spray for hard-to-reach parts of your body like your back.