In a perfect world, sun protection would be easy. Sunscreen would glide smoothly onto your skin, imperceptibly and safely providing all of the coverage you need until you wash it off. The reality, as we all know, is far different: Sunscreen often drips into eyes, feels greasy, irritates skin, and stains clothing. Worse, as our tests this year and in the past have shown, sunscreens don’t always shield your skin as well as their labels claim. People like to think they can trust particular brands or ingredients, but that’s not always the case.
We measured SPF (sun protection factor) in 34 sunscreens by applying different products to panelists’ backs and having them soak in a large tub of water for the amount of time the sunscreens were claimed to be water-resistant (either 40 or 80 minutes). When the panelists got out of the water, we exposed their sunscreen-coated skin to ultraviolet (UV) light. The result: Almost a third of the products tested fell short of the SPF claim on their labels. We also found reasons to be concerned about claims of broad-spectrum protection and of “natural” sunscreens.
But not all of the news is bad. This year, we found nonstinky products that also do a great job of protecting your skin, many of them at affordable prices. So when you’re struggling to choose from a huge selection (more than 1,000 lotions, sprays, foams, and gels are on the market), look for our recommended products and keep these five facts in mind: