Consumer Reports: Choose the Best Sunscreen

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Short of avoiding the sun altogether (what fun is that?), careful and consistent use of sunscreen remains a key way to protect your skin against the sun's rays. But choose carefully: Our latest tests showed variation in how well 10 products guard against ultraviolet radiation.

At an outside lab, we assessed protection against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation. (Many products now claim protection against both, though only UVB rays are accounted for in the sun-protection factor.) We also checked how well sunscreens lasted on a panel of volunteers who soaked in a tub of water for at least 40 minutes.

Most sunscreens protected well, and we found three CR Best Buys (available to subscribers). Our best sunscreen included both lotions and sprays. But be aware that applying sprays properly can be tricky, especially if it's windy.

When you buy

  • Choose a sunscreen labeled very water resistant or waterproof and with an SPF of at least 30, which is plenty for most people. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans for a new labeling rule that would stop SPF numbers at 50. Sunscreens that could prove more protection could be labeled 50+.
  • Look to the Ratings (available to subscribers) for excellent or very good choices. High-rated products from our 2007 tests that are still being sold include Blue Lizard Regular Australian SPF 30+, Mustella Bébé/Enfant High Protection SPF 50, Lancôme Paris Sôleil Ultra Expert Sun Care for Sensitive Skin SPF 50, and Fallene Cotz SPF 58.
  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun to allow for absorption. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating heavily.
  • Watch your clothes. All of the products stained when applied directly to various fabrics and left to sit for a day. Only about half the labels warned about staining.
  • Discard sunscreen that is more than two years old because it might have lost its potency. If it has no expiration date when you buy it, mark one yourself with a permanent marker.
  • Don't buy by brand alone. Past tests have shown that different formulas or SPFs within the same brand may not rate the same.
  • Don't rely on sunscreen alone to protect you from skin cancer. Wear tightly woven clothing and a hat, limit sun time, and seek shade during the hottest hours of the day.