What’s the best sunscreen? We put more than 20 to the test

Last year, I put 16 mosquito repellents to the test, and found some definite winners — and some losers.

This year, I grabbed 21 sunscreens of various types and tested them. I have very fair skin (ghostlike, my family says) and burn easily. I tried the sunscreens while gardening, while going for a long hike in the middle of Austin in the heat of the day (don’t try this at home) and while swimming at the pool.

Know which sunscreens work best and what to look for in a sunscreen. AMANDA VOISARD / AMERICAN-STATESMAN photos

I also rotated which area of the body each one covered to make sure that each sunscreen got an opportunity to be on both the upper body and lower body, except the ones that were made especially for the face. I tried ones that sprayed on, foamed on, slathered on and apply like deodorant. Some were all natural, some had chemicals by the dozen; some were sunblock rather than sunscreen. They had SPF (sun protection factor) of 21 to 100. Was there a difference?

The good news: All of them were better than nothing at all. The patches of skin left bare definitely reddened.

See how we rated them:

Baby

Badger Baby Chamomile & Calendula

Type: Very thick cream

Price: $11.48 with $2 off coupon

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Zinc oxide, plus sunflower seed oil, beeswax, chamomile, calendula extract, seabuckthorn fruit extract. The tube says it is non-GMO, biodegradable, 98 percent organic, 100 percent certified natural.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 40 minutes

Scent: Light floral scent

Does it work? Yes. Badger baby was one of the best-performing. It was definitely water-resistant and sweat-proof. It was one of the few spots where there was no coloration of the skin, except the white residue left by the cream. The cream was a bit hard to spread because of its thickness. We could definitely tell where we put it. The scent was OK, but with all those floral ingredients, we expected it to smell better.

Would we use it again? Yes, especially on someone who is fair-skinned or a baby.

Banana Boat Simply Protect Baby

Type: Mineral-based lotion

Price: $7.92

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50+

Ingredients: Titanium dioxide, zinc oxide. The tube says there are no oxybenzone or parabens, no added oils or fragrances, but there are plenty of glycerides and other chemicals listed in the inactive ingredients.

Water resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Light sunscreen scent.

Does it work? Yes. It was definitely sweat-proof and water-resistant, but it does not rub in or remove easily with soap and water. Days later, my back is still white from where this sunscreen is lingering. It also was not as thick as some sunscreens so it got everywhere, including my car seat.

Would we use it again? Maybe. The great thing is it really works, but with it getting everywhere and being hard to get out, we’re a bit hesitant.

Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Whipped

Type: Mousse-like whipped sunscreen

Price: $9.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus various alcohols, acids and other chemicals. The bottle also says it is free of fragrances, parabens, oils, dyes and PABA.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Very light sunscreen smell

Does it work? It definitely let some reddening of the skin happen. It also was not sweat-proof at all, and we didn’t experience any water-resistance qualities.

Would we use it again? Probably not. We loved the concept of the whipped sunscreen, but it was incredibly hard to unlock the cap and press down on the top to squirt out the mousse. It also got all over clothes, but it did rub in better than some of the other baby lotion.

 

Kids

H-E-B Solutions Kids

Type: Lotion spray that sprays white for no missed spots

Price: $6.75

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus a lot of other chemicals as inactive ingredients. The bottle says it is hypoallergenic and dermatologist tested.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Light sunscreen scent

Does it work? Not well. This spray was goopy and gross, which made it hard to spray on hard-to-reach areas. It got everywhere. It also did not protect from pigment changes. In fact, each time, the area where we used this spray was one of the most burned areas. It was definitely sweat-proof, but not as effective on water-resistance after a trip to the pool.

Would we use it again? A big no.

Alba Botanica Kids Sunscreen tropical fruit

Type: Cream

Price: $5.99 with $2 off coupon

SPF: Broad Spectrum SPF 45

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, octyl salicylate, plus natural oils and extracts, as well as oils. The tube also says it is tear-free, gluten-free, biodegradable, with no oxybenzone, octinoxate or animal testing, and with natural fragrances.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Very light scent, not fruity.

Does it work? There was definitely some color change, but not as bad as with others. It was easy to apply, rubbed in nicely and didn’t leave that white residue. It did fine with handling sweat. It wasn’t particularly water-resistent, but it also didn’t come off in the pool, either.

Would we use it again? Yes, because it was so easy to apply, but it’s not the most effective one we tried.

Sport

Banana Boat Sport sunscreen stick

Type: Sunscreen stick with Powerstay Technology

Price: $7.92

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50+

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, plus some other chemicals and cocoa butter.

Water-resistant: Water and sweat up to 80 minutes

Scent: Very light.

Does it work? We did have some skin color change, but not a lot. It was some of the most water-resistant and sweat-resistant of the group. It was easy to use and didn’t feel tacky at all. In fact, you could hardly tell you had it on.

Would we use it again? For ease of use, yes, but we would go over the area a couple of times. Also, it’s unclear how much of the body you could cover before you would run out.

Neutrogena CoolDry Sport sunscreen stick

Type: Sunscreen Stick with Micromesh

Price: $9.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50+

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, also some beeswax, plus parafin and chemicals.

Water-resistant: Water and sweat-resistance up to 80 minutes

Scent: Strong scent that’s nice, but might be overpowering on the whole body

Does it work? No. This area had some of the most color change. It did have some excellent water-resistance, but wasn’t particularly sweat-proof. It also was tacky to the touch and hard to see where it went on.

Would we use it again? No. We love the idea of a sunscreen stick for ease of use, but it didn’t work as well as the Banana Boat version.

No-Ad Suncare 30 Sport

Type: Sunscreen

Price: $6.97 with a $2 coupon

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, oxybenzone, plus some alcohol, glycerin and a lot less other inactive ingredients than most. It says it is paraben-free, fragrance-free and oil-free.

Water-resistant: Water and sweat-resistance up to 80 minutes.

Scent: It has a heavy sunscreen scent.

Does it work? Yes. We did not notice a color change any time we used it. It stayed on with sweat and water, though it wasn’t noticeably water-resistant.

Would we use it again? Maybe. It worked, but was cold when it went on and slightly greasy. The smell was like wearing a walking billboard for sunscreen.

Neutrogena CoolDry Sport sunscreen spray

Type: Spray

Price: $10.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 70

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus some other chemicals.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes, plus it says it “stays on through sweat”

Scent: It smells like a French perfume in a good way.

Does it work? We saw some color change. It was the easiest spray to use, though. When you do use it, get ready to jump. It’s really, really cold when it touches the skin. It also was a little greasy. We didn’t notice any particularly great water-resistance or sweat-resistance.

Would we use it again? Probably not. We wanted it to work better as a sunscreen. It was the easiest to use spray, though.

Goddess Garden Organics Sport

Type: Cream

Price: $12.98

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, with some shea butter, coconut oil, safflower seed oil and sunflower oil. It calls itself a “natural sunscreen” with organic ingrediants, and says it has no chemical sunscreen.

Water-resistant: Yes, for 80 minutes.

Scent: I thought it was smelly; my husband thought it smelled good.

Does it work? Yes, there definitely was no skin color change with this sunscreen. It definitely had water-proofing and sweat-proofing abilities.

Would we use it again?Probably not. It was definitely one of the best sunscreens as far as efficacy, but it left a white residue and was smelly. It also never fully rubbed into the skin and left its mark on the seat of the car.

Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport Ultra Light

Type: Cream lotion

Price: $7.92

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Avobenzone, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus fruit and flower extracts, shea butter, mango seed butter, paraffin, alcohol and chemicals. It says it is oil-free and breathable, non-greasy and won’t clog pours.

Water-resistant: Water- and sweat-resistant for 80 minutes.

Scent: Smells nice, though sunscreeny.

Does it work? Somewhat. There was definitely a color change, but it wasn’t particularly bad. It definitely had water-resistance properties.

Would we use it again? Maybe. It was some of the nicest feeling of the creams and rubbed in well. It left the skin with a cool feeling and wasn’t sticky. It’s performance was a bit disappointing.

Regular adult sunscreen

H-E-B Solutions Sunscreen Ultra Protection

Type: Clear spray

Price: $8

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 100

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus some oils, flower extracts, and some chemicals.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Stinky sunscreen smell.

Does it work? No. Despite it being SPF 100, when we used it, the area had some of definite color change. This was also the only area where the burn actually hurt. It wasn’t particularly sweat-proof or water-resistant.

Would we use it again? No. It didn’t work, plus it was very oily and runny and hard to put on. It left the skin oily.

Neutrogena Beach Defense Water + Sun Protection

Type: Cream lotion

Price: $8.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 70

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus water, alcohol, and more chemicals. It says it is oil-free and PABA-free.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Nice, light scent.

Does it work? It worked better than some of the others, but there was still some color change. It wasn’t particularly water-resistant or sweat-proof. It felt good, but made the skin look oily.

Would we use it again? Yes, but there are better sunscreens out there.

SunBum premium moisturizing sunscreen spray

Type: Light-mist spray

Price: $15.99

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, plus a few other inactive ingredients including vitamin E-enriched. It says it is paraben-free, oil-free, PBA-free, hypoallergenic, vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, oxybenzone-free, non-comedogenic and retinyl palmitate-free.

Water-resistant: Yes, to 80 minutes.

Scent: Smells like sunscreen.

Does it work? Yes, it provided some of the least amount of skin color change. It didn’t have particularly noticeable water-resistance, and it wasn’t sweat-proof. The mist made it difficult to see if it was covering, but the sticky residue left behind helped us figure that out.

Would we use it again? Yes, but the price was a bit prohibitive. Also we could have done without the stickiness.

Hawaiian Tropic Anti-oxidant sunscreen lotion

Type: Moisturizing lotion

Price: $7.92

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene and some alcohol and oils, flower and fruit extracts, plus green tea extract. It promises to help prevent skin damage and skin aging from the sun.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Nice fruity, floral, coconut scent.

Does it work? Yes, we didn’t see much color change. It out-performed some of higher SPF sunscreens.

Would we use it again? Yes, it rubbed in well, wasn’t greasy, smelled great, and left a nice cool feeling.

SunBum premium moisturizing sunscreen lotion

Type: Moisturizing lotion

Price: $14.99

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, plus a few other inactive ingredients including vitamin E-enriched. It says it is paraben-free, oil-free, PBA-free, hypoallergenic, vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, oxybenzone-free, non-comedogenic and retinyl palmitate-free.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Nice light coconut scent

Does it work? There was a noticeable color change. It wasn’t particularly water-resistant or sweat-proof.

Would we use it again? No. It was very watery, yet it didn’t rub in very well and went everywhere. It left a glistening residue.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost water gel lotion sunscreen

Type: Water gel lotion

Price: $10.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 50

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus water, glycerin, alcohol, and more.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes

Scent: Light, delightful floral scent.

Does it work? Yes, there was some color change, but not a lot. It had definite water-resistance.

Would we use it again? Yes, but note that it is blue in color, which is a bit odd, and it says it’s not greasy, but we found it to be a bit greasy. It was easy to spread and rub in.

Aveeno Active Naturals Protect + Hydrate lotion sunscreen

Type: Lotion

Price: $9.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 70

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus water, glycerin, alcohol, beeswax, oat kernel flour and extract and oat protein.

Water-resistant: Sweat- and water-resistant up to 80 minutes

Scent: Nice floral scent.

Does it work? Not really. For SPF 70, we would have expected less color change. It also wasn’t particularly water-resistant or sweat-resistant.

Would we use it again? No. It was hard to spread around and didn’t rub in.

Bullfrog Mosquito Coast Sunscreen + Insect Repellent

Type: Spray with insect repellent for up to eight hours without bites

Price: $6.48 with $2 coupon

SPF: SPF 30, the only one that didn’t say “broad spectrum”

Ingredients: Octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone for sunscreen; butyl, acetylamino propionic acid ethyl ester for repellent; plus aloe and vitamin E.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes.

Scent: Very chemically smelling.

Does it work? No, each time we used it, we saw noticeable skin color change.

Would we use it again? No, not only did it not work, but it was smelly, oily and left the the skin at first tingly and then itchy. It also was not sweat-proof at all.

Face

Neutrogena Clear Face Break-out free liquid lotion sunscreen

Type: Liquid lotion for the face

Price: $8.97

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 30

Ingredients: Avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone, plus water, silica, bark extract and more.

Water-resistant: Yes, up to 80 minutes.

Scent: Neutral smell.

Does it work? Not really. This area of the face was the most burned area of the body. It also was very liquidy and left the skin feeling really tight.

Would we use it again? Nope. It didn’t do the job, plus pimples followed.

CoverGirl CG Smoothers BB Cream

Type: Tinted moisturizer and sunscreen

Price: $7.09

SPF: Broad spectrum SPF 21

Ingredients: Octinoxate and zinc oxide

Water-resistant: No

Scent: None.

Does it work? Not really. We still had reddening of the skin. We also sweated right through it.

Would we use it again? Yes, as a foundation; no as the only sunscreen.

Take aways

  • You can’t judge a sunscreen by the SPF number. One of the worst was SPF 100. Some of the best was SPF 30.
  • The sprays were less effective then the creams that you spread on or the sticks that you press on.
  • It’s true that those with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are considered sunblocks rather than sunscreens, worked the best. You just have to be willing to put up with white tinting of the skin and that it doesn’t always rub in.
  • Just because it says water-resistant and sweat-resistant doesn’t mean that’s true.
  • Even the most “natural” sunscreens have some unpronounceable ingredients on the back.
  • There are really only about seven different sunscreen active ingredients. It’s about how they are stabilized and how they are delivered to your body.
  • Any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen.

Sunscreen tips

  • Sun damage is cumulative, and it matters how many burns you had as a child and young adult when it comes to skin cancer later in life.
  • A tan is sun damage.
  • You need sunscreen every day, especially on your face, neck and upper chest, which are regularly exposed.
  • Try to avoid going out in the heat of the day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Even if it’s a cloudy day, you can get burned. The clouds only block about 20 percent of the sun’s UV rays.
  • Apply sunscreen on 30 minutes before you go outside.
  • Most sunscreen should not be applied to wet skin unless the label says it can be.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours.
  • If you’re in water, reapply sunscreen every 40 minutes to an hour even if it says “water-resistant.”
  • Most people don’t use enough sunscreen. You need an ounce of sunscreen each time or about a shot-glass full.
  • Spread sunscreen in a thick layer. If you are using a spray, you need to rub it in. You might need to spray an area three times and rub it in three times to get it thick enough.
  • Choose a sunscreen that says “broad spectrum,” which indicates that it will protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • SPF stands for sun protection factor. SPF measures the protection against UVB rays. It does not measure protection against UVA rays.
  • Choose the right SPF. An SPF of 30 means its 30 times more sun protection factor than nothing. You want an SPF of 30 or above.
  • New research actually indicates that the higher the SPF the better, which means there’s now a case for an SPF of 70 or 100. Previously, scientist thought there wasn’t much of a difference after SPF 50.
  • The fairer your skin, the more SPF you want to choose.
  • Sunscreen in makeup is not enough SPF, plus you don’t re-apply it every two hours to adequately protect.
  • A layer of sun-protective clothing will be better than sunscreen for protection. You can buy clothing with SPF factor built into the fabric or you can actually wash it in the washing machine with RIT Dye SunGuard to give it an SPF factor of 30.
  • There’s a difference between sunblock and sunscreen. Sunblock will have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in it. It prevents the UV rays from penetrating into the skin. Sunscreen doesn’t block the UV rays, but it changes them once they hit the skin to make the rays not as harmful.
  • Children younger than 6 months can use a sunblock made for babies, but check with your pediatrician first. Keeping babies that young out of the sun and covered will be a better option than the sunblock.
  • There are slight differences in the formulas of regular sunscreen and sunscreen for children. In general, the one for children is made for delicate skin. The formula for babies should be a sunblock, but not always, so read the ingredients label first.
  • If you see a change in your skin or a mole or birthmark, see a doctor.
  • One in 5 people will be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70.
  • More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined.

RELATED: More sunscreen tips

Sources: Dermatologists Dr. Ted Lain, Sanova Dermatology; Dr. Samantha Hill, formerly of Specially for Children and Dell Children’s Medical Center; and Dr. Lakshmi Atkuri, Scott & White Clinic — Round Rock; and Patricia Agin, formerly Coppertone’s scientific affairs leader at its Solar Research Center, and skincancer.org.