Most people are aware of the dangers of going out in the sun without a protective layer of sunscreen on their body. But with so many body sunscreens on the market today, how can a person decide which product is right for them?
The goal of this buying guide is to help consumers understand the most important factors to consider when purchasing a body sunscreen, with product recommendations provided by experts.
We’ve obtained input from Medical Doctors about this topic who discuss the most effective ingredients to look for when purchasing a body sunscreen, as well as how to understand SPF and other important factors.
This guide also includes a list of body sunscreens that have all been recommended by the Medical Doctors we’ve interviewed and details about why these particular products are considered among the best.
In This Guide:
- The Importance of Using Sunscreen
- The Dangers of Not Using Sunscreen
- Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreens
- Understanding SPF
- Best Sunscreens for Various Skin Types
- Best Sunscreens for Pregnant Women
- How to Properly Apply Sunscreen
Sunscreen is an essential way to prevent skin cancer, protecting your skin from ultraviolet damage and also reducing the effects of photo-aging that occurs, according to Dr. Kally Papantoniou, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in cosmetic, laser and surgical dermatology in New York City.
Many people only wear sunscreen if they are on the beach, or will be out for long periods, she said.
“It is best to have more regular use of sunscreen for skin cancer and age prevention – not just for the days you will have prolonged exposures,” Dr. Papantoniou advised.
Dr. Marc M. Kerner, Medical Director of Dermatique Medical Center for Advanced Skincare in Southern California, agreed that it’s important to use body sunscreen “because it protects the skin from skin damage including skin cancer, discoloration, and premature aging.”
Ultraviolet light is a carcinogen, plain and simple, and regarded as such by the World Health Organization, said Dr. Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Sanova Dermatology in Austin, Texas.
“It should be thought of in the same vein as cigarettes or smokeless tobacco – their use has direct correlations to lung and oral cancer, just as excess UV exposure has a direct correlation to skin cancer,” Dr. Lain warned. “If you consider the choice to smoke as inane and ignorant, the decision not to wear sunscreen is just so.”
The potential dangers of not using sunscreen on the body include repeated sunburns, and long-term exposures can increase your risk for skin cancers and prematurely age skin with wrinkles, discoloration, and damaged collagen, according to Dr. Papantoniou.
“Sunscreen used regularly will slow the aging process, and also reduce skin cancer risks in those who apply adequately and regularly,” Dr. Papantoniou advised.
Apart from skin cancer, we know that unprotected sun exposure leads to premature skin aging, Dr. Lain further emphasized.
“As a society we place an incredible premium on youth and a youthful appearance, spending vast sums of money to achieve a younger appearance,” Dr. Lain said. “Consistently wearing sunscreen from a young age precludes the early formation of dark spots, wrinkling, and volume loss, allowing you to maintain a youthful appearance.”
Zinc and titanium are the key ingredients to look for, according to Dr. Papantoniou, because “these are important physical blockers that have a wide spectrum of photo protection, and will not break down with sun exposure such as a chemical blocker.”
Dr. Lain said first and foremost, make sure the body sunscreen is broad-spectrum – meaning that it contains ingredients that block UV-A and UV-B.
“If you have sensitive skin…you would want to focus on physical blocker sunscreens, meaning they contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” Dr. Lain advised.
Chemical blocker sunscreens transform UV radiation to a harmless form, while physical blockers actually reflect, rather than absorb, the radiation, Dr. Lain explained.
“They tend to be less irritating, although can leave a white residue on the skin if applied in a thick layer,” Dr. Lain noted. “The downside to the physical blocker ingredients is that they get degraded quickly by the UV radiation as well, meaning they lose their efficacy over time and require more frequent applications.”
For the vast majority of the population, Dr. Lain recommends products with a combination of physical and chemical blockers.
UV-B blocking ingredients are plentiful and stable, Dr. Lain explained, while UV-A ingredients are more unstable and require other ingredients for stabilization.
“The most common UV-A blockers are avobenzone and oxybenzone,” Dr. Lain noted. “Avobenzone is the better of the two, but is quickly degraded by UV radiation; therefore it requires stabilizers to enhance its endurance.”
SPF values above 50 have very little difference in efficacy, according to Dr. Papantoniou.
“A sunscreen with SPF 30 to 50 is adequate for regular use, and SPF 50 is better for those with photo-damage or burn easily,” she noted.
Dermatologists used to say that there is little benefit to using a sunscreen above an SPF 30, because higher SPF formulations offer little extra protection as long as the products are applied evenly and in adequate amounts, according to Dr. Lain.
“The latter is most important – the average adult requires one ounce of sunscreen to fully cover sun-exposed areas when in a swimsuit,” Dr. Lain said.
Dr. Lain further noted a recent study that looked closer at this assumption, specifically testing whether higher SPFs do in fact provide greater protection against sunburns.
“Remember that the SPF rating is a measurement of how well the product protects against UV-B, and since we know that the UV-B rays lead to burning, this is an understandable endpoint for the study,” Dr. Lain explained.
“Interestingly, SPF 100 sunscreens did show an appreciable and significant reduction in sunburn risk compared to SPF 50,” Dr. Lain added. “Based on this data, dermatologists are forced to change our recommendation, to start using high SPF sunscreens rather than SPF 30.”
Dr. Kerner said it’s important to choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher, is water resistant and provides a broad spectrum coverage which includes UVA and UVB.
“The minimum SPF should be 30 and include UVA and UVB protection,” Dr. Kerner advised. “A sunscreen with 30 SPF will block about 97% of UVA rays and a SPF of 45 will block about 98% of rays.”
Now that we’ve explored many of the factors surrounding body sunscreen, this section offers a list of body sunscreen products that have been recommended by our experts. The cost of these product ranges from $9 to $48 depending on the size you buy and where you make your purchase, whether it’s directly from the manufacturer or from retail stores like Walmart or Target.
According to Dr. Papantoniou, it is not necessary to buy the most expensive sunscreen for better coverage.
“The least expensive sunscreens that have good coverage are Neutrogena Healthy Defense and Vanicream sunscreen,” Dr. Papantoniou advised. “These are great sunscreens for daily use for those with more sensitive skin and are available at every drug store. Vanicream is hypoallergenic which is great for those who cannot otherwise tolerate sunscreen.”
Neutrogena’s Helioplex umbrella of products is also consistently excellent and trustworthy, according to Dr. Lain.
“Their Ultra Sheer line goes on with a wonderfully smooth texture,” Dr. Lain noted. Additionally, “their Beach Defense line can be applied when the skin is wet, making it a great choice when in the pool or at the beach since re-application is so easy.”
Dr. Lain added that he is also “quite taken” with the Supergoop!® products.
“They contain the correct ingredients, in the correct amounts, produced in many different formulations,” Dr. Lain explained. “There is even one that helps to gradually bronze the skin while providing excellent coverage.”
“I certainly recommend their Everyday Sunscreen SPF 50 is wonderful for daily use,” Dr. Lain added, “but I think their Super Power Sunscreen Mousse SPF 50 is truly innovative, since it contains natural antioxidants to protect against more than just UVA and UVB.”
|Best for Fair Skin: Neutrogena® Beach Defense®|
Highlights: This dermatologist recommended oil-free sunscreen, which can help protect against the signs of sun damage, is fast absorbing and lightweight while providing broad spectrum UVA and UVB sun protection. Active ingredients include Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene and Oxybenzone.
Cost: This product costs $10.99 on the manufacturer’s website. Comparatively, it is also sold at Walmart and Target for around $9.
|Best for Acne-Prone or Oily Skin: Neutrogena® Ultra Sheer®|
Highlights: Created with “dry-touch technology,” Neutrogena® Ultra Sheer® is an award-winning sunscreen that goes on easily and absorbs quickly, leaving a non-greasy, matte finish.
Cost: This product comes in various forms and is sold on the manufacturer’s website, including the 30 SPF body mist for $10.49; the SPF 70 liquid for $12.99; the SPF 100+ lotion for $12.99; and an SPF 70 stick for $10.99. Comparatively, at places like Walmart, the 30 SPF body mist costs $7.47; the SPF 70 liquid costs $11.97; the SPF 100+ lotion costs $9.97, and the SPF 70 stick costs $9.97.
|Best for Sensitive, Acne-Prone Skin: Neutrogena® Healthy Defense®|
Highlights: Neutrogena® Healthy Defense® is a daily moisturizer with sunscreen broad spectrum SPF 50 that provides protection from the aging effects of the sun. According to the manufacturer’s website, this lightweight, non-greasy product contains Helioplex® Technology that helps protect the skin from harmful UVB-burning rays and UVA-aging rays which can cause premature lines and wrinkles. This moisturizer also contains an exclusive anti-oxidant blend with pure Vitamin E, which helps prevent environmental damage.
Cost: This product costs $15.99 on the Neutrogena® website. It can also be purchased on Amazon for around $15; at Target for $13.79; and around $12 at Walmart.
|Best for Sensitive Skin: Supergoop!® Everyday Sunscreen SPF 50|
Highlights: Everyday Sunscreen SPF 50 provides broad-spectrum sun protection for the body in an oil-free lotion that’s water resistant for up to 80 minutes. This product is made with natural extracts of citrus, basil and bois de rose to help eliminate the typical “sunscreen” smell. According to the manufacturer’s website, this product is formulated with Avobenzone, making it a good product for people of darker skin tones because it absorbs into the skin and doesn’t leave a white substance.
Cost: The cost on the manufacturer’s website depends on the size, which ranges from 1 fluid ounce for $10 to 18 fluid ounces in an “endless summer pump” for $48. The cost is similar at other stores; for instance, the endless summer pump costs the same at Amazon, Sephora and Nordstrom.
|Best for Combination Skin: Supergoop!® Super Power Sunscreen Mousse SPF 50|
Highlights: This quick-absorbing body mousse is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. Ingredients include blue sea kale, which provides antioxidant protection; as well as shea butter, olive and avocado oils, which leave the skin nourished and moisturized.
Cost: The price range depends on the size. On the manufacturer’s website as well as Sephora, a 3.4-ounce bottle is $19 and a 7.1-ounce bottle is $34.
|Best for Sensitive, Acne-Prone Skin: Vanicream™ Sunscreen|
Highlights: Vanicream™ Sunscreen is a light, fragrance-free formula that provides high sunscreen protection without the use of chemical sunscreens, according to the manufacturer’s website. The Vanicream™ Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50+ is dermatologist tested and formulated with 7% zinc oxide and 5% titanium dioxide. This product is free of common chemical irritants found in ordinary sunscreens, such as dyes, fragrance, lanolin, parabens, formaldehyde, formaldehyde releasers and other preservatives. Vanicream™ Sunscreens are also available in SPF 30 and Sport SPF 35.
Cost: This product can be purchased at Walmart for $14.56; at Walgreens for 12.55; and at Amazon for $14.57.
|Best for All Skin Types: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light SPF 45 Body Sunscreen|
Highlights: Dr. Lain also recommends the La Roche-Posay product line. The Anthelios Ultra Light SPF 45 Body Sunscreen is fast absorbing and water resistant for up to 40 minutes. It is made with a combination of UVA and UVB filters to provide broad spectrum protection, as well as an antioxidant complex to help protect skin from free radicals caused by UV rays.
Cost: This product costs $36.99 on the manufacturer’s website as well as Dermstore. It can also be purchased at Target and LovelySkin for around $27.
Dr. Lain recommends physical blocker sunscreens for pregnant women – particularly the non-nanoparticle types.
“Nanoparticle physical sunscreens are the most elegant of this type since the physical blockers are so small as to not cause a white residue on the skin, but their size does allow penetration in the hair follicle and possible bloodstream,” he explained.
» See Also: Best Sunscreen for Babies and Kids Buying Guide
ConsumerReports.org recommends the two safest sunscreens to use during pregnancy are Coppertone Lotion and Equate Sunscreen. For one, they are both lotions, which means they cannot be inhaled like a spray. Neither one of these contains retinol or retinyl palmitate, which, according to studies, might be associated with birth defects. They are also void of the nanoparticles associated with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which research shows might have reproductive and developmental effects in animals.
|Best for Pregnant Women: Coppertone® WaterBABIES® Sunscreen Lotion|
Highlights: Consumer Reports recommends Coppertone Lotion for both children and women who are pregnant. The Water Babies version contains broad-spectrum SPF 50. Unlike a spray, this lotion won't enter the lungs during application. It doesn't contain nanoparticles, which are found in titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in animal studies. This product is also the #1 pediatrician recommended brand.
Cost: This sunscreen costs $7.97 at Walmart and $8.99 at Target. You can also buy a two-pack at Amazon for $13.65.
|Best for Pregnant Women: Equate ULTRA Protection Sunscreen Lotion|
Highlights: This product, with broad spectrum SPF 50 sunscreen, has been recommended for pregnant women by Consumer Reports. This isn't a spray, so it won't enter the lungs during application. It doesn't contain nanoparticles, which have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in animal studies. It is also void of retinoids, which are chemically similar to ingredients found in some oral acne medications, and may be associated with birth defects.
Cost: The best price for this product is at Walmart, where it costs around $7.50. Comparatively, it is also sold on eBay for $16.98.
Sunscreen as a moisturizer can be applied daily as a morning routine for best results, Dr. Papantoniou advised.
“For longer exposures outdoors, areas of the body exposed should be covered with sunscreen or sun-protective clothing,” she said. “Remember to reapply after water exposure, and to reapply in general every 90 minutes.”
Dr. Lain said that the best practice is to apply the sunscreen 30 minutes prior to going outside.
“It should absolutely be a daily practice…specifically to the face, neck, chest and other commonly exposed areas,” he said.
Dr. Kerner added that body sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours or immediately after swimming.
» For Further Reading: Best Face Sunscreen Buying Guide
In addition to everything we discussed so far, we asked our experts to answers other important questions about the use of body sunscreen:
Does sunscreen expire?
“Yes, check your labels,” Dr. Papantoniou advised. Dr. Kerner agreed: “Yes, and the date will be listed on the bottle.”
Does sunscreen prevent tanning?
It will not prevent tanning, according to Dr. Kerner.
“No, it is still possible to get a suntan,” Dr. Papantoniou said, “and even a sunburn if not applied regularly or if enough has not been applied.”
Does sunscreen cause cancer?
There are no studies showing a link between sunscreen and cancer, according to Dr. Papantoniou. “The opposite has been found that sunscreen prevents skin cancers,” she said.
Dr. Kerner agreed: “Sunscreens do not contain cancer-causing ingredients.”
Does sunscreen prevent cancer?
It can decrease the risk, Dr. Kerner said.
Is sunscreen toxic?
There are some preliminary studies that have shown chemical-based sunscreens such as oxybenzone have been linked to endocrine function disruption, Dr. Papantoniou noted.
“They could be if ingested,” Dr. Kerner said, “but used as directed they are safe and effective.”
Final Thoughts on Choosing the Best Sunscreen
Dr. Papantoniou re-emphasized the importance of paying attention to the SPF factor: “it should at least be SPF 30.”
“The trend is to look for mineral-based sunscreens,” she said. “There are preliminary studies that show there may be endocrine effects from the use of chemical based sunscreens.”
Sunscreen has been shown to be safe to use, and can help prevent skin cancers, Dr. Papantoniou noted.
“Sunscreens will help prevent skin cancer, and will help prevent photo-damage and premature aging,” she said. “The natural mineral-based sunscreens work better and pose no potential health risk, therefore I prefer these.”
Dr. Papantoniou added that natural sunscreens also offer enough protection.
“It is important that you observe the label information for SPF value and instructions for application for best results,” she said, “but the mineral blockers are the best for full spectrum UV protection.”
Sunscreens for the body usually are less advanced, and less expensive, than those for the face since they are usually not worn every day and are not as cosmetically elegant, Dr. Lain said.
“They should be SPF 30 at least, and be labeled as ‘broad spectrum’ to ensure UVA and UVB protection,” Dr. Lain advised.
“I advise against using sunscreen sprays. Ensuring even, adequate coverage is very difficult with a spray, and much is wasted in the application process,” Dr. Lain added. “Many other formulations exist – bar, mousse, foam, lotion, cream – that are very easy to apply and provide even coverage.”
» For Further Reading:
- Common Tanning Myths Explored: Is There Such a Thing as a Healthy Tan?
- How to Avoid Sunburn on Your Vacation
- Top 5 Causes of Premature Aging