Which sunscreens work best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Aug. 9 2005 7:20 AM

There Goes the Sun

Which sunscreens work best?

(Continued from Page 1)

Coppertone's logo—a dog pulling down a disconcerted little girl's bikini bottom—has become increasingly creepy over the years. Nothing, however, could be as creepy as the texture of this stuff. The spray is sticky for a minute or two after it goes on, mats body hair, and then dries into a kind of gluey mask. The can also advertises "quick & even coverage," but since you're not supposed to spray it directly onto your face, it's not all that speedy. It's billed as waterproof, and it is indeed rather hard to rinse off. That's too bad: When it's applied, it has a strong chemical smell, which morphs into an artificial-flower-sachet scent as it dries. Given a choice between this or sunburn, I'd buy it again, but not otherwise.

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Sea & Ski Sport Sunscreen (SPF 50)
Price: $6.49 for 8-ounce tube ($0.81 per ounce) Active ingredients: octinoxate, oxybenzone, octisalate, zinc oxide

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The best per-ounce bargain among the sunscreens I tested was Sea & Ski—goopy pale-pink stuff whose package boasts that it contains "Astaxanthin, 100 times more powerful than Vitamin E*" at fighting free radicals, which age the skin. Suspicious of such claims, I checked the fine print that the asterisk led to: "Miki, W., Pure and Applied Chemistry, 1991." Miki's scientific journal article, however, analyzes the effects of astaxanthin on rats who ate it—not on humans who applied it to their skin, making me wary of any benefits. Sea & Ski itself is "very water-resistant" (it can handle 80 minutes of water), and it's also fragrance-free (I found its scent reminiscent of the sunscreens of my youth). But it was relatively unpleasant to the touch: Though fairly greasy and sticky at first, it still seemed to dry my skin out. You get what you pay for, I suppose.

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Kiehl's Vital Sun Protection All-Sport Year-Round Face & Body Spray (SPF 25)
Price: $17.50 for 4.2-ounce bottle ($4.17 per ounce) Active ingredients: avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone

Sometimes you pay for more than what you get. This pricey, thin-textured spray contains both UVA and UVB protection (the latter resists water, too), is suitable for children, and like all Kiehl's products, has a vaguely posh odor—a faint floral scent, although I may have been smelling money. Still, it's gummier as it dries than a lot of cheaper sunblocks, and it's a "face & body spray" that you probably shouldn't spray on your face, lest you get it in your eyes. Undoubtedly, part of what you're buying is a Kiehl's bottle to pull out as a status symbol at the beach. It's decent, but other brands are a much better value.

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Banana Boat Sport Ultra Sweatproof (SPF 50)
Price: $8.99 for 8-ounce tube ($1.12 per ounce) Active ingredients: octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone

Banana Boat claims that this high-SPF lotion is "non-greasy," but when I touched a book's pages right after I applied it, the residue on my hands made the paper look like a pizza napkin. (Curiously, it passed the T-shirt stain test.) Giant globs emerged from the tube with the slightest squeeze, leaving me with too much sunscreen and not enough skin to spread it on. And when I left the tube out in the sun for a while, the problem only worsened. It is unscented and hypoallergenic, though, and didn't seem to sweat off when I wore it on a particularly hot day.

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BullFrog Quik Gel (SPF 36)
Price: $8.49 for 5-ounce bottle ($1.70 per ounce) Active ingredients: octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone

BullFrog advertises that its transparent, dark yellow gel is waterproof and sweatproof and that it dries instantly. It definitely dries lickety-split, since a lot of it is alcohol. While it seems fairly sweat-resistant, its performance did have some warts: It made a greasy stain on my white T-shirt, and it left a weirdly grainy texture on my hands after it dried. But even heated by the sun, this sunscreen retained its consistency, and although BullFrog's initial smell suggests the antiseptic goop they use in doctor's offices, it resolves into a genuinely nice aroma of orange peel and evergreen.

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Fallene COTZ (SPF 58)
Price: $26 for 2.5-ounce tube ($10.40 per ounce) Active ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide

COTZ's box features a big picture of the sun and the grammatically dubious assertion "Dermatologist Recommended for Sensitive Skin." Indeed, the dermatologist I spoke to mentioned it as a good alternative for those whose skin reacts badly to typical sunscreen chemicals. By far the most expensive product I tested, COTZ features micronized titanium and zinc, which reflect sunlight rather than absorbing ultraviolet radiation. It's water-resistant with roughly the consistency of toothpaste (not affected much by heat) and resembles calamine lotion in appearance. Although it claims to be unscented, it's got a mild flowery-mud aroma. It turns mostly clear once it's rubbed in, unlike the old zinc oxides, but it did leave a pale orange stain on my white T-shirt. If I had a medical reason to use it, COTZ would be a godsend, but otherwise I wouldn't shell out for it again.

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