Trying to find the best sunscreen can be a challenge. There are hundreds of products on the market, many of which don’t meet the SPF claims of the manufacturer or they contain a worrying list of chemicals that can be harmful to your health. To help you find an effective and safe sunscreen for you and your family, we have put together a rough guide on some of the best lotions out there and what you need to know about them. Find out:
- What is the difference between a Chemical and a Physical Sunscreen? Which is better for you?
- What do you need to know before buying?
- What are the best sunscreens to buy and why?
|Top Picks||Best Sunscreen (Overall) ||Best Sport ||Best Natural ||Best for Baby ||Best High End |
|Name||Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50||Neutrogena Ultimate Sport Sunscreen, Broad Spectrum SPF 70||Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+||California Baby Super Sensitive SPF ||La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk |
|Meets all SPF UVA/UVB claims|| Yes||Yes||–||Yes|| Yes|
|Main Active Ingredients||Avobenzone,Homosalate 13%,Octisalate 5%,Octocrylene 7%, Oxybenzone 4%|| Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 10%, Oxybenzone 6%||Zinc Oxide||Titanium Dioxide (12%)||Avobenzone, Homosalate,Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone|
|EWG Rating(1 -least toxic, 10 -most toxic)|| 5||7||1||1||7|
What are the main types of sunscreen?
There are two general types of sunscreens, physical and chemical ones. Physical (sometimes called mineral based) sunblock uses physical UV filters like Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide to deflect or block the sun, while chemical lotions use chemical UV filters that work by absorbing the sun’s rays.
There is a fascinating battle between the two types of sunscreens, largely due to a hugely popular and influential website that is put together by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG have analyzed 1700 different products and given them a ranking based on their toxicity. Almost all of the chemical based products (Coppertone, Banana Boat, Neutrogena type brands) that dominate the market, pretty much universally rank horribly on the EWG’s 2015 Guide with high levels of toxicity. The brands that rank well on the EWG site are virtually all physical/ mineral based. Conversely, if you look at another hugely influential professional testing site, Consumer Reports, almost all of their top recommendations are chemical based products and they are very dismissive of the physical/mineral based lotions because they have found through their product testing that they don’t provide the type of UVA and UVB coverage that you need to stay safe in the sun.
Which should you choose: Chemical (Big Brand) or Physical (Natural)?
To decide whether you should get a physical or a chemical based product is basically trying to figure out which is the lesser of the two evils. Are you more worried about exposure to chemicals like Oxybenzone that can disrupt the hormone system or Retinyl palmitate that may lead to cancer, that are active ingredients in most chemical sunscreens? Or are you more concerned with not having adequate coverage from UVA and UVB rays that can lead to melanoma? (Consumer Reports found that many of the physical sunscreens did not have the SPF that they claimed to have) Some other points to consider:
- Chemical sunscreens are generally cheaper and apply clear, while mineral based solutions are more expensive and leave a white coating on the skin. You can buy mineral based products that use clear zinc or nanoparticle sized zinc or titanium, however these should be avoided as some experts are concerned about the health effects of these type of compounds.
- Mineral sunscreens are less likely than those that contain chemicals (such as avobenzone) to irritate skin or cause allergic reactions.
- In professional testing “natural” or mineral sunscreens have tended to perform worse than those that have chemical active ingredients, such as avobenzone.
- Chemical sunscreens are much easier to buy. Some of the mineral sunscreens have to be ordered online or are only available at specialty stores
Regardless of which type of product you choose, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and the benefits of sunscreens far outweigh potential risks from their ingredients, so you should at least wear some type of sunscreen.
What you need to know when buying
- Avoid Spray products. Spray sunblocks are very convenient and consumers love them. However there are two big problems with them. One problem is that they can be inhaled which can cause lung irritations and titanium dioxide is a possible carcinogen if inhaled. The second problem is that they don’t cover skin completely and it is very easy to miss spots when applying it. The FDA is currently studying the safety of spray sunscreens.
- Avoid SPF values above 50+ Most consumers assume that the higher SPF you buy, the more protection you will have. This is not the case. The difference in protection between an SPF 50 and an SPF 100 is actually very small. It also doesn’t mean that you are getting double the amount of protection in SPF 100 vs SPF 50. SPF only refers to UVB rays not UVA, so some customers may have a false sense of security with how much protection they are actually getting and how long they can stay in the sun without reapplying the lotion.
- Make sure you use enough lotion Recent studies have shown that people are applying only 25% of the amount of sunscreen that they should be. It should also be applied 30 minutes before going out in the sun, and reapplied every two hours or after you’ve been sweating or swimming.
- You don’t need to buy a special formula for your kids The FDA makes no distinction between kids and adults products.
- Only buy products that have broad-spectrum protection This means that the sunblock protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Both types of rays can be equally damaging to your health, so you need to protect against both types.
- Skin Irritation If you have sensitive skin that is prone to breakouts or skin irritation, you will probably want to consider a physical solution, since chemical UV filters can be more irritating to sensitive skin.
- Physical sunblocks often leave a white cast or streaks when applied and don’t offer as much UVA protection compared to chemical solutions.
- Physical solutions are also a bit thicker so they may be more difficult to apply.
Best Sunscreen Overall
TOP CHOICE (Chemical) Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 13%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 7%, Oxybenzone 4%
Cost: approx. 10$ for 16 oz.
EWG Rating: 5
Why we picked it
Equate Ultra Protection Lotion SPF 50 is from Walmart’s very popular Equate line of products. It is very low cost and is easily available at any Walmart store or can be ordered online.
It has consistently been rated in the top recommended sunscreens by Consumer Reports for a number of years now. This product also has excellent consumer reviews. Customers love that it goes on well, soaks in quickly and doesn’t leave a greasy residue. It also has a pleasant scent that is not overpowering. This lotion has a moderate ranking of 5 on the EWG rating system, so while there are some worrying chemicals in this brand like Oxybenzone it doesn’t have Retinyl palmitate.
Professional testing has shown that it lives up to its SPF claims, so you can be assured that you will be well protected when out in the sun.
Best Sport Sunscreens
TOP CHOICE (Chemical) Neutrogena Ultimate Sport, Broad Spectrum SPF 70
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 10%, Oxybenzone 6%
Cost: approx. 15$ for 4 oz.
EWG Rating: 7
Why we picked it
Neutrogena Ultimate Sport was also one of Consumer Reports recommended choices. Even though it is listed as having an SPF of 70 (which should generally be avoided), it is still listed as a highly rated product by professional testers because it has very strong test results for high UVA and UVB protection. It is slightly more expensive than similar sport protection products, but not wildly so. This lotion can be purchased at most grocery, big box, or drug stores that sell sun lotions making it easily available. It also has exceptional customer reviews. Customers like that it absorbs nicely, is easy to apply and doesn’t sting eyes or skin. It is also reported that it doesn’t run when users sweat while biking, hiking or doing other outdoor sports.
On the negative side, it doesn’t score incredibly well on the EWG ranking, with a toxicity score of 7. This isn’t great, but if you are looking for a strong protection against both UVA and UVB rays while swimming or sweating heavily, then this is a really good choice.
TOP CHOICE (Physical/Mineral Based) Vanicream Sunscreen Sport
Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide (8%), Octinoxate (7.5%)
EWG Rating: 2
Cost: $13 for 4 oz.
Why we choose this
For those looking for a great physical sports product, an excellent choice is Vanicream Sunscreen Sport with an SPF 35. The active ingredient is Zinc Oxide, so this is a great option for those users who have sensitive skin and need to avoid chemical blockers. Since it hasn’t got any got any of chemical blockers it has a very good a EWG rating of 2, although one of its active ingredients is octinoxate which some users will want to avoid.
Most user reviews are very positive about this product, especially from those who have sensitive skin. Another thing that people find very favorable is that there is no scent or almost no scent, which is difficult to find in sun products.
This sunscreen is highly recommended by a number of dermatologists, although many sun protection product manufacturers market heavily to dermatologists, so consumers need to be aware of that.
Best Sunscreen with Natural Ingredients
TOP CHOICE (Chemical) Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+
Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide
Cost: approx. $15 for 2.9 oz.
EWG Rating: 1
Why we picked it
After being chosen as one of the top rated sunscreen by the EWG website in 2010 and maintaining a top ranking since then, Thinkbaby Safe SPF 50+ has become one of Amazons bestselling sun lotions. It continues to perform well in the EWG rating system with a ranking of 1.
Since it contains zinc oxide, it goes on as a slightly whitish paste and is very thick, which may come as a shock to users who are used to big brand chemical products, but it is easy to apply and blend into the skin. This company has a few products including Thinkbaby, Thinkkids and Thinksport that all have the same active ingredients. It isn’t the cheapest lotion on the market at $15 for 2.9 oz., but generally the physical solutions are more expensive than chemical solutions.
Customer reviews are very favorable for the Thinkbaby lotion. Users particularly love the smell of the product, some describing it has smelling like vanilla and oranges. There are reports of this lotion turning watery, but this may be due to storing conditions or a bad batch of the product.
Best Sunscreen for Babies
TOP CHOICE (Physical/Mineral Based)California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+
Active Ingredient: Titanium Dioxide (12%)
Cost – $11 for 1.3 oz.
EWG Rating: 1
Why we picked it
California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, $20.00 (2.9 ounces), was the only mineral based product that got a good rating for UVA and UVB protection in the most recent Consumer Reports testing. Consumer Reports found that most of the physical/mineral sunscreens that it tested did not meet their SPF claims, but California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+ was one of the few products that did.
California Baby is often recommended by pediatricians as a safe alternative for very young babies (as young as 2 months based on recent changes in the AAP recommendations). As with most mineral based products it is expensive for the amount of lotion that you are getting. It is also very thick and when applied it leaves a white residue, don’t let that scare you off though since reviewers love that it is safe and finds that works well for most children and babies.
TOP CHOICE (Chemical)Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Homosalate , Octisalate , Octocrylene, Oxybenzone
Cost: approx. $13 for 8 oz.
Why we choose this
If you are looking for a chemical based sunblock for your baby that you can ensure will protect them from both UVA and UVB rays and has the SPF that it claims to, then a good choice is Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50.
This was Consumer Reports top choice for babies. Not surprisingly it didn’t receive a great ranking from EWG. They gave it a rating of 5 as it contains Oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can cause organ system toxicity. There is slightly less toxic formula available called Coppertone Water Babies Pure and Simple SPF 50 that has a EWG ranking of 3, although it didn’t test as well for UVA protection in the Consumer Reports testing as the Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50. User reviews report that they find this to be a very effective product at preventing sunburns over a long period of time. Most customers find that it has a pleasant fragrance, goes on well and doesn’t leave a greasy feel after soaking into the skin.
Best High End Sunscreens
TOP CHOICE (Chemical) La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk (SPF 60)
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 10.72%, Octisalate 3.21%, Octocrylene 6%, Oxybenzone 3.86%
Cost: approx. $36 for 5 oz.
Why we picked it
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk (SPF 60) was Consumer Reports’ 2015 highest-rated product. It received a perfect score of 100 in their testing, but it is much more expensive than the other lotions that were tested at $36.00 for a 5-ounce bottle. If you are willing to spend the money then this is a great product, especially for users who may have sensitive skin.
It is also one of the top products that is recommended by dermatologists (although again, manufacturers market heavily to dermatologists) . Some of the noted selling points for this lotion is that is has no scent, doesn’t stain clothes, absorbs quickly and goes on clear.
TOP CHOICE (Physical/Mineral Based) EltaMD UV Lotion Broad-Spectrum SPF 30+ 7 oz
Active Ingredients: 9.0% Zinc Oxide, 7.5% Octinoxate
Cost: approx. $30 for 7 oz.
EWG Rating: 2
Why we choose this
A physical/mineral based alternative option if you are looking for a high end solution is Elta MD UV Shield SPF 45. This product has extremely positive user reviews, especially for a physical product. Users love the texture and find that it’s invisible after being rubbed in, which is unusual for a physical lotion. It won’t cause breakouts and doesn’t irritate the eyes or skin according to most reviews. There is also no fragrance.
This is another product that is often recommend by dermatologists, although we didn’t rank this as our top choice as because according the Consumer Reports testing the reported SPF is lower than the actual product SPF, which is obviously a big problem and something the company needs to address.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately buying the best sun protection for your family isn’t as easy as it should be, but companies are stepping up and trying to put safer ingredients in their products. With the help of websites like EWG, consumers are better able to educate themselves about the safety of different products on the market and find what might be best for their family. There is a lot of room for improvement for sun safety products and hopefully in a few years there will be really effective natural products that won’t include harmful chemicals and will offer really good UVA and UVB protection.