Get a Good Sunscreen at a Great Price

Trisha Calvo

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

No doubt about it: If you’re using sunscreen properly, you’re going to go through a lot of it over the course of a summer.

Let’s do the math. It takes a full ounce to cover your body, and you need to apply that amount every 2 hours you’re in the sun. Most sunscreens come in 4- to 6-ounce containers, so a family with four members who each spend 8 hours a week in the sun should easily use 37 to 56 bottles of sunscreen from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Sunscreen can be pricey, but here’s the good news: You can get a good product for a lot less than you think. In fact, according to Consumer Reports’ tests, you can’t judge a sunscreen by its price at all.

“We found protective sunscreens priced at over $12 an ounce and ones that cost as little as 44 cents an ounce,” says Susan Booth, the project leader for CR’s sunscreen testing. To illustrate how price and performance don't go hand in hand, consider that our two top scoring lotions cost $7.20 and $2.50 per ounce, and the bottom two scorers cost $1.17 and $9.75 per ounce.  

How We Test Sunscreens

In CR’s comprehensive testing, we looked at more than 80 sunscreens on the market. We included products from beauty brands such as La Roche-Posay and Shisedio, drugstore sunscreens such as those from Coppertone and Neutrogena, and store brands such as Trader Joe’s and Equate from Walmart.

All of the sunscreens were labeled SPF 30 or higher, broad-spectrum—meaning they protect against both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays—and water-resistant.

“We buy sunscreens off-the-shelf, the way consumers would,” Booth says. Every sunscreen in our ratings is tested at a lab using the same methods. “We use three samples, preferably with different lot numbers, of each product,” Booth says.

(CR uses a testing protocol that is modeled on the one the Food and Drug Administration requires sunscreen manufacturers to use. But as is the case with other products we test that have government or industry standards, we use those standards as benchmarks and develop our own methodology to identify differences in performance and give consumers a comparative evaluation.)

The first test checks for SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, a relative measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you from sunburn, which is mostly the result of exposure to the sun’s UVB rays.

In our SPF test, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to a 2x3-inch rectangle on our panelists’ backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, smaller sections of the area are exposed to five or six intensities of UV light from a sun simulator for a set amount of time. About a day later, a trained technician examines the areas for redness.  

We also test to see how well a sunscreen shields skin from UVA rays, which penetrate into the dermal layer, damaging collagen and elastic tissue. This leads to premature skin aging and skin cancer. Unlike UVB rays, which are strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., UVA rays are present throughout daylight hours, even on cloudy days. That’s why you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

The test, which allows us to determine the degree of UVA protection, involves smearing sunscreen on plastic plates, passing UV light through, and measuring the amount of UVA and UVB rays that are absorbed.

Price vs. Performance

Our overall sunscreen ratings are a combination of the results from our UVA and UVB tests as well as variation from SPF, a measure of how closely a sunscreen’s tested SPF matched the SPF on the label.

When we plotted the scores against the price per ounce for all of the sunscreens we tested, we saw no clear relation between price and performance. In our ratings this year, six sprays and lotions that received Excellent or Very Good overall scores cost $1 per ounce, and eight cost even less than that. Here are a few of them.

Sunscreen Protection

Do sunscreens really protect as much as their manufacturers claim? On the "Consumer 101" TV show, a Consumer Reports' expert, Sue Booth, breaks down what you need to know to keep you safe from the sun's harmful rays.



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