April 23, 2021 -- A $4 sunscreen from Walmart performed well enough to be recommended and termed a "Best Buy" in this year's sunscreen ratings from Consumer Reports, which were just released. It is Equate Sport Lotion SPF 50, a Walmart brand.
In addition, two sunscreen sprays made the recommended list: Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport Spray SPF 30 ($9) and Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear Spray SPF 50 ($11). The entire report of rankings is posted on the Consumer Reports website for members.
"Social distancing over the past year made it more difficult to do the sunscreen testing," says Trisha Calvo, deputy editor of health and food at Consumer Reports and editor of the report.
The team does tests in the lab and on real people, Calvo says. For the tests on people, the participants sit in a tub of water for 40 to 80 minutes, depending on the product's claim of water resistance. They come back the next day so their skin can be examined for redness to determine the SPF protection.
SPF, or sun protection factor, measures how well a sunscreen protects against sunburn, which is mostly the result of UVB ray exposure. Products labeled "broad spectrum" protect against both UVA, linked with skin aging, and UVB. Consumer Reports tests the products for UVA and UVB protection.
This year, five fewer products were tested than last year's list of 53. Calvo says they hope to add more products over the coming months.
"We still have not been able to find a mineral-based sunscreen that did well enough to recommend," she says, citing some consumer concerns about chemical sunscreens, which contain ingredients such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, among others. The chemicals have been found to soak into the skin and bloodstream. The FDA is trying to understand the long-term effects of this absorption. It says that absorption does not equal risk and that you should keep using sunscreen.
While some are concerned about the chemical sunscreens, Calvo says the risks of skin damage and skin cancer from being out in the sun are far greater than the risk of chemicals in sunscreens.
"We did have two mineral sunscreens that got a good rating," she says. They are not at the top of the list, but she views them as acceptable for those trying to avoid chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens use ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that act as physical barriers against the sun's rays.
- Badger Active Natural Mineral Cream SPF 30 ($18)
- California Kids #supersensitive Tinted Lotion SPF 30-plus ($20)
More Top Performers
Among other products to consider, Calvo says:
- Kiehl's Activated Sun Protector Lotion SPF 30 ($32)
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face Lotion SPF 70 ($13)
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios Lotion Spray SPF 60 ($25)
"We recommend ideally that you don't use sprays on kids," Calvo says. Children are more likely to inhale the sprays. But she knows parents may prefer sprays due to convenience. If they do use a spray sunscreen on kids, ideally parents should spray it on their hands and then rub it into their child's skin. Or at the least, parents could have their child close their mouth and eyes and turn their head away when they spray it on.
Never spray sunscreen on the face, she tells adults and children.
Dermatologist Weighs In
Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, reviewed the rankings. "It is surprising that there were more sprays than lotions recommended," she says. In her opinion, "spray sunscreens tend to be less effective, meaning that the skin is more susceptible to being damaged by the sun's UV rays. This means that there is a higher risk for sun damage and the potential development of skin cancers."
She stresses that it’s crucial to put on spray and lotion sunscreens the right way. She recommends an ounce of sunscreen applied to exposed skin for adults. With sprays, she says, it can be difficult to know how much has been applied.
When picking a sunscreen for kids, she suggests finding one that is water-resistant and has broad-spectrum coverage with an SPF of 30 or more.
Calvo reminds consumers to look at sunscreens as just one sun protection step. She urges people to wear a hat and cover up in the sun.
"No sunscreen blocks all of the sun's rays," she says.