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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.

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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 $1.50 per ounce for a standard-size bottle (usually 8 ounces) and less than $12 total.

Banana Boat Ultra Defense SPF 50 (starting at 97 cents per ounce) and No-Ad SPF 45 (starting at 31 cents per ounce) finished at the top of the class. Two other good cheap sunscreens, Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish SPF 30 (starting at 80 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 on the Label

SPF 15 or Higher.

What is SPF, exactly? The initials stand for sun protection factor. Sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block a higher the 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.

Review continues below

Most of the cheap sunscreens we recommend are available in a variety of SPF strengths. 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.

Thanks to recent changes in FDA regulations, sunscreens that protect against both types of UV radiation are now 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 on the Label

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. Here are a few options available to you when you're shopping for sun protection.

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.

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