Best Sunscreens in 2013 – Consumer Reports

The problem with choosing between sunscreens is that they all claim to do everything. The July 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine again tested a variety of sunscreens against their claims. For example, one important thing that CR tested for was protection against both UVA and UVB rays. UVB causes sunburn, but UVA damages and ages skin on a deeper level. Some major brands are notably weaker in protecting the UVA part of the spectrum. New labeling and test requirements from the Food and Drug Administration have also added specific requirements before a sunscreen can claim “broad-spectrum protection” from UVA/UVB. Other factors like water-resistance were also tested, as there really is no such thing as “water proof” or “sweat proof”.

Consumer Reports used to say that anything above SPF 30 doesn’t get you much extra protection, but this year’s test results suggest that going up to SPF 40 can actually help. Above SPF 40, it will likely wear off before it makes any difference. Instead, reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.

2013 Consumer Reports Best Buys
Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection Lotion (SPF 50, $0.47 per ounce)

2012 Consumer Reports Best Buys
No-Ad Lotion (SPF 45, $0.59 per ounce)
Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport (SPF 50, $1.30 per ounce)

2011 Consumer Reports Best Buys
The Target Up & Up spray (SPF 30, $1.16 per ounce)

The Consumer Reports test results haven’t always been consistent over the last few years. CR has noted that their testing on UVA/UVB effectiveness has varied from year-to-year with the exact same product, even though the manufacturers claim the formula hasn’t changed. A brand that had one of the highest tested SPF in 2012, tested last in 2013. In addition, I noted last year that the Target spray which was a 2011 Best Buy wasn’t even tested in the 2012 issue. It was included again in 2013, again taking the top score rated “Recommended” although it didn’t win the Best Buy rating due the higher per-ounce cost.

I’ve tested a bunch of other sprays myself, including Neutrogena, Coppertone, and Banana Boat. Target was indeed the best value, with just-as-good performance and a great price compared to the big brands. I usually find it for under $0.75 per ounce. Neutrogena was my overall favorite as it was the least greasy, but it also cost more than twice as much. All of them tend to stain white clothing. (I use the Neutrogena lotion despite the higher cost for the face due to the non-greasiness.)

If you’re pregnant, you should check your sunscreen for retinyl palmitate, a common inactive ingredient in suncreens which has been linked to birth defects and thus should be avoided by pregnant women.

Consumer Reports acknowledged that other ingredients in sunscreen have also been linked to health problems in animal studies. This may indirectly refer to another popular sunscreen guide by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) which only recommends a limited amount of sunscreens that don’t include any ingredients they deem hazardous. EWG also recommends againsts using any spray sunscreen of any kind, due to the potential for inhalation. In contrast, CR believes that the benefits of sunscreens in preventing skin cancer outweigh potential risks from their ingredients.


  1. what type of neutrogena do you use for the face?

  2. I like the last paragraph! Seems like you’re starting to get into Daddy mode! Remember no sunscreen for the little one until shes 6 mos old.

  3. Keep in mind also that scientists have also been worried about the hazardous chemicals found in sunscreen (carcinogens and hormone disruptors), particularly children’s sunscreen. No-Ad 45 gets a #7 for “high-hazard” on EWG’s 10-point hazardousness scale for 2012.

  4. I love the Neutrogena stuff too, for the unobtrusive feel, but I recently came across this site that has thrown my sunscreen habits into turmoil:

    It’s possible EWG overstates the hazards of some ingredients, but from what I’ve been able to google up (specifically looking at oxybenzone) it seems like there are definitely legitimate concerns.

    If you decide to follow EWG’s recommendations you can forget about cents per ounce. From what I could find, BabyGanics seems to be a better value than most at about $1.50/oz.

  5. We’re not often brand loyal but when it comes to sunscreen my wife insists on Australian Gold. It’s not sold everywhere so have had to buy it in Florida or get it on Amazon in order to have it here. It smells great, works great, and my wife won’t use anything else.

  6. the best sunscreen for non-greasiness is Bull Frog Quik Gel. It’s the consistency of hand sanitizer so it rubs in real nice. Very sweat/waterproof as well. I have oily acne prone skin so this is the only one I can use. It stinks like alcohol tho.

  7. Charles says:

    My dermatologist recommended Blue Lizard which is pricey but good for UVA, UVB, and water resistant. It’s essentially zinc oxide and titanium oxide, pretty much what life guards always used except is now in clear formulation. Another option is to just use straight zinc oxide when you can find it. It is fairly inexpensive – I’m using Equate Zinc Oxide from Wal-Mart at the moment. This is mostly for face and neck which gets most exposure day-in day-out.

  8. I usually use the Neutrogena “Ultra Sheer Dry Touch” lotion, as it’s expensive but it last forever since I only use it on my face. Neck, arms, legs, are all spray. There are generic versions now but they feel more like regular sunscreen in a Neutro-like bottle.

    Thanks for the EWG link. I’d been reading about the chemicals, but I thought that the consensus was that the benefit of sun protection was worth the risk from the chemicals on your skin for a short period. I’ll definitely check ou the site, and I think I’ll be getting the chemical-free lotion for the kids. At first glance, I don’t see a good spray option though? Bummer.

  9. Aldi has an SPF 30 spray, 6 oz for $4.

  10. The Up&Up Target sunscreen gets absolutely terrible reviews on Target’s OWN site…! Apparently it stains and bleaches clothing badly.

  11. It does stain clothing, mostly white clothing (polyester “dri-fit” clothing in my experience), but so do the majority of other suncreens tested by Consumer Reports. Zinc oxide also stains. Some people report chlorine bleach being helpful in stain removal.

  12. Whoa, good example of sun exposure prematurely aging your face.

  13. As a paying subscriber to Consumer Reports, I do not appreciate that you often parrot the ratings of products and services Consumer Reports evaluates. Consumers Union is a non-profit organization and your commercial use of their content falls well outside fair use.

  14. Charles says:

    @Matt – I would not think this would be problem unless Johnathon is actually trying to sell Sun Screen (or providing advertising for same) and using Consumer Reports endorsement in his advertising. This is certainly not the case so would guess this would fall within fair use. This is actually good publicity for CU and might encourage some to subscribe to it. I believe many media outlets will mention CU ratings in their reporting (e.g. warnings about vehicle models that are unsafe). This web site is essentially a media outlet.

  15. Charles says:

    Here is the CU fair use policy – probably could have let Johnathon do this but I’m online so what the heck. My interpretation is that this kind of use is fair use:

    “preventing the use of our name and information for any promotional or advertising purposes. The policy helps ensure we avoid even the appearance of endorsing a particular product or service for financial gain.”

  16. I also noticed the other day that Trader Joe’s is selling suncreen, very cheap and I think cheaper than the Target brand (Up&Up). Anybody tried it?

  17. @Matt – get a life.

  18. Well, I’m pretty sure I’m considered “press” from Consumer Reports since I’m on their press release e-mail list and have free press access to all their info online. In any case, I just try to share some helpful information in brief form; compare this with how much information is included in their own long press releases:

    I still don’t know why Target was #1 in 2011 and then not even mentioned at all in 2012. Shrug.

  19. The All Terrain AquaSport SPF 30 got a great rating from Consumer Reports (88/100), a great rating from EWG (2/10, lower is better), and is reasonably priced and available on Amazon.

  20. Jennifer says:

    Definitely do more reading about sunscreens. Non chemical sunscreens (those using zinc and titanium oxide) protect the best protection against UVA and UVB. Those using other ingredients do not protect as well and should only be used if nothing else is available. I firmly believe that the spray on chemical sunscreens caused the skin cancer near my 6 year olds ear. It was in an area often covered by here hair so it was not exposed to much sun and the spray on sunscreen would “pool” there. Unfortunatley there does not seem to be a way to make a spray on sunscreen without hazordous chemicals. The natural stuff is thick and it is hard to rub in. It has to be reapplied often, but we have switched to it. Some brands are easier to rub in that others. Check out this link which has references included.

  21. Jonathan, I don’t communicate comments very often, but I ready your blog daily. Of the many blogs out there, you win in my book! Thanks for your excellent info!

  22. Actually spent the weekend at the beach, and tried out some of that zinc-oxide based sunscreen. The stuff is thick and white and both requires a large quantity and takes forever to put on, but it does work quite well and felt like it lasted a lot longer than the sprays.

    Thanks to the readers that pointed out the extra links. I still really like the sprays for the speed since I use sunscreen 2-3 times a week (will avoid any inhalation by now spraying only arms and legs) but for long beach sessions with whole-body exposure will now stick to zinc oxide. Some of those recommended brands were really expensive, though! $20 for one tube I saw.

    @Kathy – Thanks for the kind words!

  23. So I spent about four hours at the beach the other day and used UP and UP 50 spf. Came home very burned. Even reapplied halfway through. Was in the shade for most of the time. Went out that night and bought a different brand. For what it’s worth.

    And I also sort of believe

  24. SanDance says:

    ConsumerReports has an adapted article available to non-press on their GreenerChoice site:

  25. Christine says:

    Just a reminder: When using the spray on sunscreens, just remember that they are flammable. I know that most of the time you won’t be near any flames, but it is summer and if you’re poolside be careful if you you’re grilling. See article:

  26. There are several natural sunscreens available: Burt’s Bees or John Masters Organics are good natural and effective, but nothing compares with old fashion homemade sunscreen. Lot of fun to make, healthy and definitely cheaper than major brands. You can easily find good recipes on the net.

  27. More on the walgreens product:

    SPF above 50
    Retinyl palmitate
    Aerosol spray and powder sunscreen
    Insect repellent

    Hats and shade in mid-day sun.
    Zinc or Titanium are the best active ingredients, otherwise Avobenzone at 3%
    SPF 30 for intense sun
    Use a lot and reapply frequently

  28. Just stay out of the sun.

  29. Sorry for throwing another chemical consideration to make into the mix, but in addition to the other possible hazards contained in sunscreen, you should also be aware of nano-sized particles. Most products that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide have switched to the nano-scale for those ingredients. There is currently zero regulation of nano materials and they have been proven to be highly reactive. I’m not saying they will harm or kill you (because I don’t know), just that nano materials are much more reactive than their bulk equivalents and no one really knows what the long term health effects are. There are studies that say nano materials are not absorbed by the skin, but there are plenty of other studies that refute that. Avoiding sunscreen alone with these ingredients will not prevent your exposure, however. Titanium dioxide is used as a whitening agent or colorant in many cosmetics and toiletries. Toothpaste is another example.

    I don’t want to discourage the use of sunscreen because that is important, and sun exposure is a known cause and risk for cancer. If you won’t need sunscreen often, then occasional exposure to risky chemicals probably is OK. If you will use it often, then take the time and spend the money to get the safest and most effective sunscreen out there.

    I’m glad to see that people are taking the time to educate themselves about what is actually in the products they buy.

  30. Please stop the copyright infringement by publishing Consumer Reports work without their permission. Those ratings are only available to subscribers. As a Consumers Union/Consumer Reports supporter, I’m offended that you are ripping off a non-profit organization.

  31. Hey Jonathan, sorry this is off-topic but is your email subscription service still running? I’m subscribed but I haven’t received any emails since the 17th. I’m pretty sure that Gmail is not spam-filtering you out… Just wondering, thanks!

  32. @Matt:

    Looks like you don’t have to be a subscriber after all

  33. @Matt – Oh please calm down with the outrage. Consumer Reports is the one who told me about their new article. Want me to forward you the e-mail? CR *likes* articles like this as it gets people to subscribe. They share a little to everyone, and then they make you pay for the complete rankings and other articles.

    @Jon M – Thanks for notifying me of the issue. Apparently a plugin I installed to fix one problem caused another new problem. I think I’ve fixed it, but let me know if it breaks again.

  34. @Justin – Yes exactly, CR shares information here and there, but you have to pay to get the complete rankings of all their products. Oh look, CBS news also wrote about Equate Walmart sunblock! And they mentioned even more product names and rankings details! (My blog post was published first. :))

  35. If you want to avoid the chemical based sunscreens, ThinkSport makes a great sunscreen that is endorsed by the LiveStrong Foundation…

    Thinksport made their name pushing for BPA free products for children… They are kind of obsessive about consumer safety and it is what we use. My wife lost a family member to melanoma, so it is something we take very seriously.

  36. Great topic!

    My favorite sunscreen is Coppertone Sport 50 (broad spectrum). It’s usually on sale at Target or Costco. Works great and does not run into your eyes during exercise.

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