Cheap Sunscreen Buying Guide
Warnings about damage from sun exposure, constant reappraisals of what constitutes "too much sun," and frightening rates of skin cancer have transformed cheap sunscreen from a vacation-only sundry to an everyday must-have. Sunscreens range in price from $5 or $6 to well over $100 for boutique beauty creams. At the low end of that spectrum are popular brands such as Banana Boat, Coppertone, and Hawaiian Tropic. There are also several generics, such as Target's Up & Up brand and Walmart's Equate products, that do surprisingly well in lab testing, earning the respect of both experts and consumers.
Warnings about damage from sun exposure, constant reappraisals of what constitutes "too much sun," and frightening rates of skin cancer have transformed cheap sunscreen from a vacation-only sundry to an everyday must-have. Sunscreens range in price from $5 or $6 to well over $100 for boutique beauty creams. At the low end of that spectrum are popular brands such as Banana Boat, Coppertone, and Hawaiian Tropic. There are also several generics, such as Walmart's Equate products, that do surprisingly well in lab testing, earning the respect of both experts and consumers. In our search for the best cheap sunscreen, we sifted through the research and ratings and found plenty of solid contenders that cost less than $1.50 an ounce for a standard-size bottle (usually 8 ounces).
With so much concern regarding sun safety these days, both store shelves and online marketplaces are overflowing with moisturizers, lotions, and sprays offering varying levels of SPF and UV protection. The prices are as wide-ranging as the varieties, with premium brands easily selling for $10 an ounce and products from ultra-high-end cosmetic houses, such as Sisley and La Mer, commanding as much as $50 an ounce (or more) and promising to miraculously minimize skin aging while fending off the sun's rays. But many low-cost sunscreens protect as well as, or even better than, costlier upmarket brands. Frugal consumers don't have to spend much to get effective sunscreen that meets or exceeds expert recommendations for fending off ultraviolet rays without irritating skin or staining clothes.
To determine which sunscreens give consumers the best bang for their buck and allow for significant differences in package size, we homed in on cost per ounce. While some of these products may be available even cheaper as bulk buys, keep in mind that the lower per-ounce prices require a larger chunk of change up front.
Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 (starting at 75 cents an ounce) and No-Ad Sport SPF 50 (starting at 82 cents an ounce) finished at the top of the class. Two other good cheap sunscreens, Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish SPF 30 (starting at $1 an ounce) and Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 (starting at 47 cents per ounce), also make the grade. On the other end of the spectrum, consumers may want to cross Coppertone Sport SPF 50 (starting at $1.14 an ounce) off their summer shopping lists, lest they wind up with stains on clothes and towels.
Brands such as Neutrogena and Aveeno straddle the upper end of the budget category and the mid-range. While consumers with sensitive skin may consider the extra expense worthwhile, we saw an alarming number of reports of skin rashes from consumers using Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch SPF 55 (starting at $2.66 an ounce), despite its higher per-ounce price tag and recommendations from dermatologists. Some sunscreen brands, such as No-Ad and Ocean Potion, are harder to find on drugstore shelves but easily procured online. With a bit of forethought, these top picks can be on hand for trips to the beach or everyday outings.
Chemical Content and Mineral Sunscreens.Some standard sunscreens, including Ocean Potion, leave out chemicals such as oxybenzone, which has been blacklisted by the Environmental Working Group, although the Skin Cancer Foundation and other expert organizations have declared it safe. Instead, these sunscreens contain other common UV filters such as avobenzone, which has proved highly effective and poses minimal cause for concern. The Pure Sun Defense brand makes a point of marketing its products as PABA-free, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic. Nevertheless, many consumers want to further reduce their overall chemical exposure, preferring "natural," mineral-based sunscreen.
Mineral lotions act as physical repellents, reflecting the sun's rays so the skin doesn't absorb them. Despite the popularity of these formulations -- which generally rely on ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide -- testing by consumer product experts suggests that these lotions are generally less effective than chemical sunscreens. They also tend to work best when applied in a thick and smooth layer, often leaving behind a visible white cast that some users dislike.
Products such as Honest Mineral-Based Sunscreen SPF 50 (starting at $4.65 an ounce) and "bargain"brand Hang Ten Kids Mineral SPF 50 (starting at $2.64 an ounce) demonstrate that "natural" is not an unalloyed good. Not only does the Honest Company brand cost a pretty penny, but buyers have taken to social media in droves to report painful sunburns while using a previous version of this chemical-free product. The company issued an apology, and although a new formula is now on the shelves, some recent reviews still complain of poor performance, and others grouse about the ghostly hue it gives to skin.
Hang Ten Kids Mineral SPF 50 might look tempting for the price, but the Environmental Working Group gives it only fair to moderate scores for UVA/UVB balance and rates the ingredient list as akin to many chemical sunscreens. For frugal consumers concerned about the chemical content of the skin care products they purchase -- perhaps because of personal sensitivity or intended use on very young children -- this lotion seems not to buy much extra assurance. A better choice might be Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen SPF 50+ (starting at $1.62 an ounce), which receives good reviews from experts and users and is one of the cheapest "chemical-free"brands on the market. For those who feel comfortable using conventional sunscreens, we found plenty of effective products for less money.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
What We Looked For
Lotion vs. Spray Sunscreen.Many consumers favor spray sunscreens for their ease of application and minimal mess. Spraying is faster than slathering and keeps hands clean. Sprays are convenient for on-the-go athletes and wriggly kids, and they don't rack up the complaints about fabric stains or streaking that some lotions do. However, experts caution that the nearly invisible nature of the mist makes it easy to under-apply the product. And because little is known about the effects of accidental inhalation, organizations such as the American Academy of Dermatology and the Food and Drug Administration recommend traditional lotions over sprays. There is also a risk, although rare, of flammability. In 2012, Banana Boat recalled many of its spray sunscreens after the products ignited on users' skin, and the FDA has recommended that safety precautions be taken when using sprays, particularly those containing alcohol, near an open flame. For these reasons, we chose to focus only on sunscreen lotions.
SPF.What is SPF, exactly? The initials stand for sun protection factor. Sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block a higher percentage of the sun's rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an SPF 15 sunscreen blocks about 93 percent of the harmful UVB rays responsible for burning skin. SPF 30 sunscreen filters out about 97 percent, while SPF 50 boasts a slightly higher rate of 98 percent. Experts are somewhat divided on how much sun protection to look for when purchasing a cheap sunscreen, although none recommend any lower than SPF 15. The AAD suggests an SPF of 30 or higher, while the American Melanoma Foundation advises that SPF 15 or higher is sufficient for most people.
Most of the cheap sunscreens we recommend are available in a variety of SPFs. The amount of sun exposure a person can tolerate (i.e., the SPF needed) depends on factors including skin type, time of year, time of day (early-afternoon sun is stronger than early-morning sun), and location (geography and terrain). When planning to be outdoors for an extended period or in an area where the sun is particularly strong -- at the shore, say, or in the mountains -- choose a cheap sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. A higher SPF is also a good choice for people who have fair skin, work outdoors, or spend lots of leisure time outside. For everyday use, just walking down the street or traveling in a car, SPF 15 or 20 should be sufficient.
Anything over SPF 50 can lend a false sense of security, as there is no evidence that SPF values higher than 50 provide more benefit. Even jumping from SPF 30 to SPF 50 represents only one percentage point of additional protection. The FDA is considering making "50+" the maximum SPF allowed on sunscreen labels.
Broad-Spectrum Coverage.Sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum coverage protect skin against both UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn, but they are not the only threat that healthy skin faces. UVA rays are responsible for premature aging effects, including wrinkles and age spots, and UVA exposure increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Because deeper-penetrating UVA rays can pass through windows, it is important to apply sunscreen every day, even if you plan to be indoors, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Under current FDA regulations, sunscreens that protect against both types of UV radiation are labeled "broad spectrum," making it easier for consumers to determine a product's coverage level.
Water Resistance.The FDA now bans the use of words such as "waterproof" and "sweatproof" on sunscreen packaging, on the grounds that they overstate sunscreens' effectiveness. Instead, sunscreens that remain effective while the wearer is swimming or sweating are labeled "water resistant" and must indicate how long the water resistance lasts (40 minutes or 80 minutes). Choosing a water-resistant sunscreen is especially important if you're planning to be active outdoors. Water sports and other sweat-inducing activities quickly negate the benefit of sunscreens without water-resistant properties.
What We Ignored
Cosmetic Ingredients.Some attributes of certain sunscreens don't necessarily affect the quality or function of the product but may play into some consumers' buying decisions. Most cheap sunscreens, including all our top picks, contain moisturizing ingredients such as vitamin E, aloe vera, and/or cocoa butter. A few sunscreens, such as Jergens Natural Glow Face Daily Moisturizer SPF 20 (starting at $3.75 an ounce), incorporate these types of moisturizers and, as an added bonus, a bit of self-tanner. Since our focus is on budget and basic protection as opposed to cosmetic benefits, our list leaves off self-tanning sunscreen and other such products.
After considering the guidelines set out by authorities such as the FDA and AAD, we began our reading of sunscreen reviews by evaluating what other experts had to say. This included studying the results of hands-on testing by leading consumer advocates and taking into account, with a grain of salt, some of the cautions raised by organizations such as the Environmental Working Group. Next, we scoured user reviews on retail sites such as Amazon, Target, and Drugstore.com, among others. In some cases, consumers and experts agreed. In other instances, we found differing opinions as to which products were the best and why. In the end, we narrowed down the list based on the areas that seem to matter most to both experts and consumers.
Effectiveness.As with many personal care products, complete agreement about the effectiveness of any given formula is nonexistent among consumer reviewers. How well a sunscreen protects against the sun's nasty ultraviolet rays depends on the formulation but also proper application and SPF level, which must be suited to the user and the situation. Consumers may have to experiment with several products to find the one that works best for them.
That said, there is a general consensus in sunscreen reviews about the value of the budget sunscreens on our list. Pure Sun Defense SPF 50, for example, is declared surprisingly effective at protecting fair skin of all ages in Walmart customer reviews. Fans of No-Ad Sport SPF 50 applaud the lotion's effectiveness in sunscreen reviews on Amazon, saying it performs well in harsh climates or full days spent in the sun. Even cancer survivors, such as a fair-skinned user diagnosed with melanoma and a construction worker who beat leukemia, report that they trust No-Ad over other, better-known sunscreen brands.
Ease of Application.No sunscreen will be effective if it's not applied properly; that is, carefully and often -- don't be stingy. The FDA and AAD calculate that an average adult male wearing a bathing suit needs 1 ounce (approximately 31 ml) to cover exposed skin. The palm of the hand holds about an ounce, so that's a handy way to judge how much to use. Experts say to apply the first dose at least 15 minutes and no more than 30 minutes before going outside, allowing it just enough time to absorb. After that, reapply the sunscreen about every two hours and always after swimming -- regardless of water resistance or SPF level. Keep reapplication in mind especially if using natural products, as many seem less adept at maintaining protection levels post-swim. Consumer product testing suggests that Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen SPF 50 drops to an SPF 25 performance level once exposed to water.
Our picks come in lotion or cream form, so ease of application largely depends on the thickness and feel of the product. Although many reviewers consider spray sunscreen easier to apply than a lotion, cream, or gel, the questions raised by the FDA and others about the safety of spray sunscreens outweigh any convenience.
One common complaint about water-resistant sunscreens is that they feel sticky or greasy. To some extent, that's to be expected, but some water-resistant sunscreens are far less sticky than others, according to sunscreen reviews. One good example is Pure Sun Defense, which glides on without being greasy, according to a parent who posted feedback on the Target website. On Amazon, a reviewer with sensitive skin agrees that Pure Sun Defense absorbs wonderfully but says it leaves skin coated in an oily residue.
Staining and Skin Irritation.Negative sunscreen reviews often cite harm to clothing or skin. On the Walmart website, customers credit Coppertone Sport SPF 50 with providing powerhouse protection but repeatedly ding the sunscreen for staining clothing orange. This product earns just 2.5 out of 5 stars, with more than half of all reviewers reporting stains. Although the product was recently reformulated, as of yet there are no reviews to indicate that this eliminates the risk of discoloration.
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch scores with some experts for protection as well as a gentle touch on skin. However, too many consumers complain about skin irritation and rashes after applying this sunscreen. Many are satisfied with the no-sunburn results and like the lotion's effect on their skin, but about one out of every five reviews on Amazon is negative.