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?

Seven years ago, several hours of unprotected sun exposure at an outdoor rock festival left me looking and feeling like a boiled lobster. Thanks to Eastern European ancestry and decades of bookishness, I'm a vaguely pinkish shade of very light blue, and the merest tickle of solar radiation spells trouble for me. But since then, I've taken to carrying a bottle of sunblock with me almost everywhere I go—and I've become something of a sunscreen connoisseur.

Sunscreens (and sunblocks—the names are effectively interchangeable) differ by SPF, or sun protection factor, numbers and active ingredients. SPF refers to the factor by which a sunscreen slows down burning from the UVB range of ultraviolet sunlight; skin coated with sunscreen boasting an SPF of 40 will take 40 times as long as bare skin to burn. While SPF measures only UVB protection, not UVA protection, virtually every commercially available sunblock now claims to protect against both UVA and UVB radiation.

Sunscreens' active ingredients do one of two things: Chemical screens like octisalate (which blocks UVB) and avobenzone, aka Parsol 1789 (which blocks UVA), absorb UV rays; physical blocks like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—the white gunk you used to see old people putting on their noses, now micronized so that they disappear into the skin—reflect sunlight altogether. The point is to protect your skin against sunburn and, more important, against squamous-cell and basal-cell carcinoma and melanoma. It's best to apply sunscreen a half-hour before sun exposure and to reapply every few hours if you're swimming: 98 percent of the sun's rays pass through water, so if you go snorkeling without sun protection, you're going to get scorched.

Methodology

In an effort to make sense of the dizzying array of sunscreens on the market, I tested nine varieties, with prices ranging from 81 cents an ounce to more than $10 an ounce. First, and most important, I checked their effectiveness: I applied a different brand every sunny day for several weeks. As it turned out, every sunblock did its primary job fine. (I asked Dr. Walter G. Larsen, a Portland, Ore., dermatologist and skin-cancer expert, if there were particular sunblocks he recommended. "They're all pretty good these days," he shrugged.)

But to ensure my test was foolproof, I applied the nine sunblocks in stripes along my arms. I also hiked up one shirt-sleeve, which gave me a sort of Jennifer-Beals-in-Flashdance look, so that an unprotected shoulder could serve as a control. I spent a while soaking up rays, and after an hour or so, I washed both arms to test water resistance. I then went back outside for another couple of hours, gently humming Michael Sembello's "Maniac" under my breath. Result: one painful, bright-pink shoulder and two arms that were otherwise as pale as when I started. I checked for variation—was one area, perhaps, a little brighter than others?—but found none.

The sunscreens' effectiveness and resistance to water isn't too surprising, given how heavily they're regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. A "water-resistant" sunscreen has to maintain the indicated SPF after 40 minutes in the water, unless it's rubbed off. (Some brands still claim to be "waterproof," but the FDA announced a few years ago that "water-resistant" is more apt, since nothing is entirely waterproof.)

Still, effectiveness isn't the only reason to pick a sunblock—it has to be something you want to slather on your body. My wife and I subjected every formula to the all-important sniff test. Then I gave them the "Is it soup yet?" test: I left the containers in the hot sun for a few hours and checked to see whether the sunscreen turned into runny, scalding liquid, or if it retained a manageably thick texture. Every sunscreen was also tested on an old, unloved T-shirt to see if it would leave a stain. Finally, I considered the additional claims each brand made on its packaging.

The results, from least- to most-satisfying

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Coppertone Continuous Spray (SPF 30) Price: $9.99 for 6-ounce canister ($1.67 per ounce) Active ingredients: homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, oxybenzone

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

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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Coppertone Sport Ultra Sweatproof Lotion (SPF 48)
Price: $8.99 for 8-ounce tube ($1.12 per ounce) Active ingredients: homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, oxybenzone

Coppertone's sport line has a bland, inoffensive odor with a hint of coconut oil. Although it flows very freely even at 70-degree temperatures and could be poured like half-and-half once it had spent some time in the sun, it lives up to claims that once it's rubbed in it "won't run into eyes and sting." It did give my skin a slight stickiness at first, but after it had dried it actually increased the natural friction of my hands, without a parched sensation—useful for those sweaty games of beach billiards. I'd certainly buy it again, especially if I thought I'd be active in the sun.

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Hawaiian Tropic Ozone Sport Sunblock (SPF "60+")
Price: $10.99 for 8-ounce bottle plus 2-ounce "travel size" bottle ($1.10 per ounce) Active ingredients: octocrylene, oxybenzone, avobenzone

This thick lotion took a longer time than any other brand to rub in, but its creaminess isn't a bad thing: It felt like a moisturizer, and it held up well in the sun. Its scent is fairly strong; I couldn't quite place it, but my wife correctly identified it as cherry soda. Hawaiian Tropic also has the highest SPF of any sunblock I tried. It advertises "triple play action," which sounds a little dirty but apparently refers to the fact that it's waterproof, sweat-proof (i.e., waterproof), and "non-migrating" (i.e., won't drip into your eyes, i.e., it's waterproof). The complimentary "snap-off travel size" bottle, small enough to fit in a pocket, is a nice touch.

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Neutrogena Healthy Defense Oil-Free Sunblock Spray (SPF 30)
Price: $7.99 for 4-ounce bottle ($2 per ounce) Active ingredients: avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate

"Oil-free formula helps block the sun not your pores," declares the bottle of my experiment's winner, and it's true that Neutrogena made me feel a lot less basted than other sunblocks. Despite the relatively high price, a squirt or two of this clear stuff goes a long way. Like the BullFrog, it's mostly alcohol, which evaporates quickly. (I put it on right after shaving and found that it had, let's say, astringent properties.) Although it's pungent at first, once it dries it's got a pleasant, citrusy smell, like orange-blossom water. And it's far lighter on the skin than most of the other brands I tried—neither oily nor particularly drying. After a few minutes, my skin felt clean, gunkless, and primed for some safe basking. What could be better?

Thanks to Dr. Walter G. Larsen for his valuable assistance.

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