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Cheap Sunscreen Buying Guide

To determine which sunscreens give consumers the best bang for their buck, and allow for significant differences in package size, we homed in on cost per ounce. Ultra-high-end sunscreens are often sold in smaller quantities than their more affordable counterparts and might command as much as $10 to $50 per ounce.

Some bulk buys have low per-ounce prices but require a chunk of change up front. In our search for the best cheap sunscreen, we found plenty of solid contenders that cost less than $1 per ounce for a standard-size bottle (usually 8 ounces) and less than $12 total.

Banana Boat Ultra Defense SPF 50 (starting at 99 cents per ounce) and No-Ad SPF 45 (starting at 53 cents per ounce) finished at the top of the class. Two other good cheap sunscreens, Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish SPF 30 (starting at 90 cents per ounce) and Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 (starting at 56 cents per ounce), also make the grade. On the other end of the spectrum, we recommend crossing Coppertone Sport SPF 50 (starting at $1 per ounce) off your summer shopping list, lest you wind up with stains on clothes and towels.

Some sunscreens, such as No-Ad, Ocean Potion, and Blue Lizard, are hard to find on drugstore shelves but have built a cult following through word-of-mouth. These are easily procured online, and pricing ranges from cheap to mid-range. Brands such as Neutrogena, Aveeno, and California Baby straddle the upper end of the budget category and the mid-range price point. These products cater to consumers with sensitive skin, or those hoping to minimize the chemical content of their sunscreen. Ironically, we saw an alarming number of reports of skin rashes from consumers using Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch SPF 55 (starting at $3 per ounce), despite its higher per-ounce price tag and recommendations from dermatologists.

At the very high end, we find expensive concoctions such as Sisley, Skinceuticals, and La Mer products. But many low-cost sunscreens protect as well as, or even better than, costlier upmarket brands. Frugal consumers don't have to spend much to get effective sunscreen that meets or exceeds expert recommendations for fending off ultraviolet rays without irritating skin or staining clothes.

What We Looked For

SPF 15 or Higher.

What is SPF, exactly? The initials stand for sun protection factor. Sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block a higher percentage of the sun's rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, an SPF 15 sunscreen blocks about 93 percent of the harmful UVB rays responsible for burning skin. SPF 30 sunscreen filters out approximately 97 percent, while SPF 50 boasts a slightly higher rate of 98 percent. Experts are somewhat divided on how much sun protection to look for when purchasing a cheap sunscreen, although none recommend any lower than SPF 15. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests an SPF of 30 or higher, while the American Melanoma Foundation advises that SPF 15 or higher is sufficient for most wearers.

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Most of the cheap sunscreens we recommend are available in a variety of SPFs. The amount of sun exposure you can tolerate (i.e., the SPF you need) depends on factors including skin type, time of year, time of day (early-afternoon sun is stronger than early-morning sun), and location (geography and terrain). If you plan to be outdoors for an extended period or in an area where the sun is particularly strong -- at the shore, say, or in the mountains -- choose a cheap sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. A higher SPF is also a good choice for people who have fair skin, work outdoors, or spend lots of leisure time outside. For everyday use, even if you're just walking down the street or traveling in a car, SPF 15 or 20 should be sufficient.

Anything over SPF 50 can lend a false sense of security, as there is no evidence that SPF values higher than 50 provide more benefit. Even jumping from SPF 30 to SPF 50 represents only one percentage point of additional protection. The Food and Drug Administration is considering making "50+" the maximum SPF allowed on sunscreen labels.

Broad-Spectrum Coverage.

Sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum coverage protect skin against both UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn, but they are not the only threat that healthy skin faces. UVA rays are responsible for premature aging effects, including wrinkling and age spots, and UVA exposure increases the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Because deeper-penetrating UVA rays can pass through windows, it is important to apply sunscreen every day, even if you plan to be indoors, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Under current FDA regulations, sunscreens that protect against both types of UV radiation are labeled "broad spectrum," making it easier for consumers to determine a product's coverage level.

Water-Resistant Formula.

The FDA now bans the use of words such as "waterproof" and "sweatproof" on sunscreen packaging, on the grounds that they overstate sunscreens' effectiveness. Instead, sunscreens that remain effective while the wearer is swimming or sweating are labeled "water resistant" and must indicate how long the water resistance lasts (40 minutes or 80 minutes). Choosing a water-resistant sunscreen is especially important if you are planning to be active outdoors. Water sports and other sweat-inducing activities will quickly negate the benefit of sunscreens without water-resistant properties.

What We Ignored

Specialized Ingredients.

Some attributes of certain sunscreens don't necessarily affect the quality or function of the product but may play into your buying decision. Most cheap sunscreens, including all our top picks, contain moisturizing ingredients such as aloe vera, cocoa butter, and/or vitamins A and E. A few sunscreens, such as Jergens Natural Glow Face Daily Moisturizer SPF 20 (starting at $3.75 per ounce), incorporate these types of moisturizing ingredients and, as an added bonus, a bit of self-tanner. Sunscreens including Ocean Potion leave out chemicals such as oxybenzone, which has been blacklisted by the Environmental Working Group, instead relying on other common UV filters such as avobenzone, which has proved highly effective and poses minimal cause for concern.

Sunscreen Reviews

After considering the guidelines set out by authorities such as the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology, we began our reading of sunscreen reviews by evaluating what other experts had to say. This included studying the results of hands-on testing by consumer product experts. Next, we scoured user reviews on retail sites such as Amazon, Target, and Drugstore.com, among others. In some cases, consumers and experts agreed. In other instances, we found differing opinions as to which products were the best and why. In the end, we narrowed down our list based on the areas that seem to matter most to both experts and consumers.


As with many personal care products, complete agreement about the effectiveness of any given formula is nonexistent among consumer reviewers. How well a sunscreen protects against the sun's nasty ultraviolet rays depends on the formulation but also proper application and SPF level, which must be suited to the user and the situation. You may have to experiment with several products to find the one that works best for you.

That said, there is a general consensus in sunscreen reviews about the value of the budget sunscreens on our list. Banana Boat Ultra Defense SPF 50 (starting at 99 cents per ounce), for example, protects pale skin even when the sun is shining brightly, one user writes on the review site MakeupAlley, while another marvels that the only signs of an entire day at the beach were the two spots she missed when applying this sunscreen. Fans of No-Ad applaud the lotion's effectiveness in sunscreen reviews on Viewpoints, writing that it adequately protects kids and fair skin (even in the Bahamas, reports one parent) and works as well as pricier name brands.

Ease of Application.

No sunscreen will be effective if it's not applied properly -- that is, carefully and often; don't be stingy. The FDA and AAD calculate that an average adult male wearing a bathing suit needs 1 ounce (approximately 31 ml) to cover exposed skin. The palm of the hand holds about an ounce, so that's a handy way to judge how much to use. Experts say to apply the first dose at least 15 minutes and no more than 30 minutes before going outside, allowing it just enough time to absorb. After that, reapply the sunscreen about every two hours -- regardless of SPF level -- and always after swimming, even if you're using a water-resistant product.

Most sunscreens come in lotion or cream form, so ease of application largely depends on the thickness and feel of the lotion. One common complaint about water-resistant sunscreens is that they feel sticky or greasy. To some extent, that's to be expected, but some water-resistant sunscreens are far less sticky than others, according to sunscreen reviews. One good example is Banana Boat Ultra Defense, which glides on without being greasy or oily, according to a mom who posted feedback on Viewpoints.

Some cheap sunscreens, including Banana Boat Ultra Defense, are available as a spray, which many reviewers consider easier to apply than a lotion, cream, or gel. Spraying is faster than slathering, avoids messy hands, and covers the territory, so to speak, more evenly. Sprays are also convenient for on-the-go athletes and wriggling kids. Just remember to aim carefully -- no sense in spraying counters, furniture, walls, or the great outdoors.

Despite the convenience that spray sunscreen offers, experts caution that the nearly invisible nature of the mist makes it easy to under-apply the product. For this reason, and because little is known about the effects of accidental inhalation, organizations such as the AAD and the FDA still prefer traditional lotions. In 2012, Banana Boat recalled many of its spray sunscreens after the products ignited on users' skin. (Lotions such as Banana Boat Ultra Defense were not affected by the recall.)

No Staining or Skin Irritation.

Negative reviews often cite harm to clothing or skin. On Amazon, customers credit Coppertone Sport SPF 50 (starting at $1 per ounce) with providing powerhouse protection but repeatedly ding the sunscreen for staining clothing orange. This product earns just 2.5 out of 5 stars, with more than half of all users reporting stains.

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch (starting at $3.75 per ounce) scores with some experts for its protective abilities as well as its gentle touch on skin. However, too many consumers complain about skin irritation and rashes after applying this sunscreen. Many are well satisfied with the no-sunburn results and like the lotion's effect on their skin, but about one out of every five reviews on Amazon is negative.

Pleasant Smell.

For some consumers, the smell of a cheap sunscreen is a decisive factor in the buying decision. Banana Boat Ultra Defense and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch win over some users with their light, mild scent. Consumers posting sunscreen reviews about a variety of Banana Boat products appreciate the absence of annoying fragrances often associated with sunscreen. Note, however, that no brand seems to escape reviews from users who find the smell off-putting. Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish SPF 30 (starting at 90 cents per ounce) and Coppertone Sport SPF 50 divide posters, with some enjoying their candy-like scents and others finding them unpleasant or even unbearable.

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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Sunscreen
  2. Discount Sunscreen Features Comparison Table
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