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.

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Our Top Pick

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Pure Sun Defense SPF 50

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With packaging featuring animated characters, this sunscreen appeals to kids, but it's a solid choice for all ages. Experts say it's near perfect, and users like that it's fragrance-free and absorbs quickly.

Our Picks
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Pure Sun Defense co-founder Hugh Jackman got serious about sun protection following a skin cancer diagnosis in 2013. After having several basal cell carcinoma growths removed from his face and shoulder, the actor and his business partner, Chris Clarke, launched a sunscreen line designed to appeal to both kids and their parents. Although Pure Sun Defense has gotten the press you'd expect for a celebrity-backed venture, it has also impressed experts in performance testing since it was introduced in 2015.

Pure Sun Defense reviews from consumers are few and far between. Usually, this would be a sign to steer clear of a recommendation, but impressively high expert ratings for this dermatologist- and pediatrician-tested lotion got our attention.

Of the online reviews that do exist, nearly all award 5-star ratings to Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 (starting at $5.98 for an 8-ounce tube, or 75 cents an ounce, Amazon). One user asserts on Amazon that Pure Sun Defense performs just as well as a far pricier brand, minus the white residue. While most agree that Pure Sun Defense provides impressive protection, opinions are divided on the texture, which some consider a bit oily. Parents posting reviews on the Walmart website appreciate the mild scent and end up using this sunscreen with the kid-friendly packaging alongside their children.

Pure Sun Defense is designed to be gentle on sensitive skin and be used on both face and body. It's advertised as PABA-free, hypoallergenic, and fragrance-free, and users with fair and finicky skin seem satisfied with its follow-through so far. It does contain the active ingredient oxybenzone, which is considered safe by the American Academy of Dermatologists, but at least one other group is wary of it and some companies have removed it from their sunscreen.

Overall, effective sun protection, an affordable price, and wide availability make Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 lotion one of the most appealing sunscreens on the market.

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If you've never heard of No-Ad that might be because the company doesn't spend money on advertising and marketing. Instead, consumers learn about the product through word-of-mouth and online reviews.

Users posting No-Ad reviews on the Walmart site say No-Ad Sport SPF 50 sunscreen (starting at $13.04 for 16 ounces, or 82 cents an ounce, Amazon) goes on easily and absorbs well. It reliably protects people with fair complexions and holds up to water park excursions, long bike rides, and a multitude of other outdoor activities. Sun-seekers particularly appreciate the way No-Ad Sport stays on when exposed to water, be it a river, sweat, or even the rain.

Despite overwhelmingly positive feedback, some No-Ad users do register complaints. We saw grumbling on Viewpoints and other sites about the lotion's smell. One reviewer also warns that leaving it in a hot car or in direct heat for too long can change the texture and affect performance.

Perhaps the chief selling point of No-Ad Sport SPF 50 is the price. Numerous reviews comment appreciatively on the low cost and overall value. A medical student studying to be a dermatologist points out that, given the generous amount of sunscreen that should be applied, price is no small factor in choosing a product. Several reviews claim that No-Ad sunscreen works as well as higher-priced brands.

No-Ad Sport sunscreen lotion is sold only in SPF 50 (although an SPF 30 spray is also available). No-Ad Sport SPF 50 lotion contains aloe and vitamin E, as well as the UVA/UVB fighter avobenzone. As of 2016, retinyl palmitate and parabens have been eliminated from all No-Ad Sun Care products.

No-Ad sunscreen may be a bit harder to find than the big-name brands, but with deals available to purchase a 16-ounce bottle for just under $9, and with strong reviews from users, this is a bargain to snap up whenever you can. Keep a stock for any summertime activity.

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As evinced by mostly 5-star ratings in Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish reviews on Drugstore.com, this sunscreen is well-liked by scores of users. Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish SPF 30 (starting at $7.99 for 8 ounces, or $1 an ounce; available on Amazon) scores points with consumers for light, non-greasy coverage and broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays. In other words, it keeps skin safe from excessive sun exposure and leaves behind an appealing glow.

Reviewers appreciate that this water-resistant sunscreen applies easily, like an everyday body lotion. Vitamins A, C, and E and sea-plant extracts have been added for moisturizing and anti-aging effect. Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish reviews commonly mention the product's suitability for sensitive skin. Fans of this sunscreen say it is gentle enough for faces, safeguarding their complexions as well as the rest of their skin, and doesn't sting eyes.

Although many consumers enjoy the sugary smell — one poster likens it to a creamsicle — others disagree. One reviewer appreciates the sunscreen's price and sun protection but decries what she describes as a bubble gum scent. In another Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish review on Amazon, a user complains that this lotion makes users smell like candy.

Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish sunscreen is readily available online at sites such as Drugstore.com and Amazon, although consumers will find it absent from many store shelves. It comes in SPF levels ranging from 15 to 70. This sunscreen boasts additional benefits that may not matter to many budget shoppers but could affect your buying decision. For consumers who worry they're creating a vitamin D deficiency by blocking out the sun, this formula is fortified with vitamin D3. It is also free of oxybenzone, a controversial chemical often used in sunscreens, and isn't tested on animals. These are primary selling points for some users.

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Equate Ultra Protection reviews appear primarily on the Walmart website, as Equate is a house brand of the retail giant. Customers have given the SPF 50 lotion (starting at $7.48 for 16 ounces, or 47 cents an ounce; available on Amazon) only a few dozen ratings, but it boasts a near-perfect score. A consumer product testing organization has also rated this product, along with nearly a dozen other sunscreens, and highlighted Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 for its combination of low price and impressive performance. It effectively shielded testers from UVA radiation and stayed true to the SPF on the bottle, which indicates UVB protection.

Walmart markets a range of sunscreens under the Equate brand, but this particular lotion comes only in SPF 50. Equate Ultra Protection gets kudos from Walmart customers for doing what it's supposed to do without irritating skin, even if a few find it slightly tacky post-application. User comments on the Walmart site and a couple on the review site Total Beauty praise Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 for costing less than other popular lotions but providing equal or even greater protection from the sun. The price for the 16-ounce bottle is about the same as the price for a typical 8-ounce, brand-name bottle and buys twice as much sunscreen. Some reviewers mention the pleasant smell of the sunscreen — a plus in a category plagued by stinky, or at least polarizing, bouquets. The only negative feedback we could find was one Equate Ultra Protection review on Amazon that complained of staining. No other users cite that as an issue.

Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 sunscreen contains oxybenzone, so consumers who are chemically sensitive or prefer "natural" products may want to keep looking. Otherwise, the hypoallergenic, water-resistant formula should please most budget buyers.

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Coppertone Sport reviews say this line of sunscreens has a lot to offer. Consumer product experts give the spray version props for solid performance blocking both UVA and UVB rays and for holding up to rigorous activity. Users who have posted Coppertone Sport reviews at retail sites such as Amazon and Drugstore.com like the SPF 50 lotion (starting at $7.99 for 7 ounces, or $1.14 an ounce; available on Amazon) for the same reasons. A family of self-described redheads with children on the swim team relies on this lotion for outdoor lessons, because it stays on for about an hour in the water (or sweating on the golf course). In addition to the SPF 50 sunscreen in this review, Coppertone Sport lotion comes in SPF 15, 30, 75, and 100. A Coppertone Sport Faces version is formulated for acne-prone skin.

The biggest con to this product — and the reason it doesn't make our cut — is the orange or yellowish stains it seems to leave behind on clothing. Even positive Coppertone Sport reviews on the Walmart website include warnings about stains and consumers speculate that the manufacturer must have changed the formula. One customer who posted a review of the SPF 30 lotion on Amazon laments returning from vacation with $200 worth of ruined white clothes. The reviewer adds that soaking the items in bleach did no good.

Coppertone Sport reviews are also divided on the question of whether this water-resistant lotion runs or stays in place. Some reviewers allege that the sunscreen inhibits the cooling-off effect of sweat, suggesting that this isn't the best choice for a hot day at the beach. Consumers also disagree about the scent of Coppertone Sport SPF 50. Some find it mild and palatable while others call it unpleasant.

Coppertone recently released an updated version of the Sport SPF 50 lotion. In addition to shaving an ounce off the bottle size — going from 8- to 7-ounce packaging — the company altered the list of ingredients. Most notably, it removed oxybenzone as an active ingredient, as well as other, inactive components such as propylene glycol, triethanolamine, oleth-3, and chlorphenesin. Still unknown is whether or not these changes will eliminate the sunscreen’s tendency to discolor clothing, as this version is still too new to have generated any user reviews.

If you need reliable, broad-spectrum sun protection and don't care too much about your swimwear, this may be the sunscreen for you. If you don't want to worry about investing in a new warm-weather wardrobe every time you lotion up, we advise you to just walk by. There are cheaper products that can do the job and don't have a propensity to stain.

Buying Guide

Cheap Sunscreen Buying Guide

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.

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.

Sunscreen Reviews

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.

Smell

For some consumers, the smell of a cheap sunscreen is a decisive factor in the buying decision. Pure Sun Defense and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch win over some users with their light, mild fragrance. Note, however, that no brand seems to escape reviews from users who find the smell off-putting. Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish SPF 30 and Coppertone Sport SPF 50 divide reviewers, with some enjoying their candy-like scents and others finding them unpleasant or even unbearable. Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 also racks up complaints from otherwise happy Walmart customers who dislike its medicinal, minty scent.

Features Comparison

Sort by:
Review Score:
Product Title
Size
Sun Protection Factor
Broad-Spectrum UVA/UVB Protection
Water Resistance
Noteworthy Ingredients
Product Title
Size
Sun Protection Factor
Broad-Spectrum UVA/UVB Protection
Water Resistance
Noteworthy Ingredients

Banana Boat Ultra...

$0.99
8 ounces
SPF 50
Yes
80 minutes
Avobenzone, oxybenzone (PABA-free, fragrance free, hypoallergenic)

No-Ad SPF 45

$0.82
16 ounces
SPF 50
Yes
80 minutes
Avobenzone, oxybenzone, aloe, vitamin E, cocoa seed butter (paraben-free)

Ocean Potion Protect &...

$1
8 ounces
SPF 30
Yes
80 minutes
Avobenzone, vitamin D3, sea-plant extracts, vitamins A, C, and E...

Equate Ultra Protection...

$0.47
16 ounces
SPF 50
Yes
80 minutes
Avobenzone, oxybenzone, vitamin E

Coppertone Sport SPF 50

$1.14
7 ounces
SPF 50
Yes
80 minutes
Avobenzone, vitamin E