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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Shopping guide for best broad-spectrum sunscreens

Last Updated May 2019

Whether you have dark or fair skin and regardless of your age, you should be using a sunscreen every day that protects you from the sun’s damaging rays.

There are two types of ultraviolet light from the sun that can damage your skin and cause skin cancer: long-wave ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which penetrate skin more deeply and cause aging and wrinkling, and short-wave ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which tend to cause sunburns. Both play a role in causing skin cancer. Broad-spectrum, also called full-spectrum, sunscreens protect you from UVA and UVB. They do this either by reflecting the sun’s rays or absorbing the light and converting it into a small amount of heat. Like regular sunscreens, broad-spectrum sunscreens have a sun-protection factor (SPF), which is an indicator of how long the product will protect you from UVB rays, and it can range from quite low (15) to ultrahigh (100).

There are numerous other considerations when choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen: organic versus inorganic, your individual skin type, water/sweat resistance and environmental concerns, such as whether you’ll need a product that is reef-safe. It’s worth taking the time to understand how broad-spectrum sunscreens work and what they have to offer. Keep reading our guide for more information. You can also check out our top five recommendations.

Arguably, choosing a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection is more important than choosing the right SPF.

How broad-spectrum sunscreens work

UVA and UVB rays are present in the atmosphere at all times. What’s the difference between them?

UVA rays from the sun can reach a person’s skin through glass, so you’re getting exposure even if you’re sitting in a car or working near a window. The exposure over a lifetime is significant and can contribute to the development of skin cancer. Tanning beds and lamps also emit high concentrations of UVA light.

UVB rays from the sun are more prone to cause a sunburn. They are strongly associated with the risk of developing skin cancer. They are present all year long, though more intense in the spring through the early fall months in the U.S. The SPF of a sunscreen is rated for how well it protects your skin from this type of ultraviolet light.

Though UVA protection isn’t rated, a broad-spectrum or full-spectrum sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.

EXPERT TIP

Spray sunscreens are great for hard-to-reach spots and areas with lots of body hair.


Staff  | BestReviews

Organic vs. inorganic

A consideration for selecting a broad-spectrum sunscreen is whether it works by way of chemical ingredients or by creating a physical barrier. These two types of sunscreens are also referred to as organic and inorganic.

Organic
Organic broad-spectrum sunscreens use chemicals such as PABA derivatives, oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate to absorb radiation from the sun and convert it into heat.

Inorganic
Inorganic broad-spectrum sunscreens provide a physical barrier of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to reflect the sun’s ray. These tend to be more difficult to rub in and may leave some white residue.

Adding a layer of confusion, some sunscreens are labeled “organic” because their ingredient list contains natural, non-toxic ingredients when, in fact, these use “inorganic” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for sun protection rather than chemicals.

Lightweight luxury protection

We like this luxurious-feeling broad-spectrum sunscreen with a unique cooling sensation. This highly reputable European brand delivers advanced sun protection, even to the most sensitive skin. Its oil-free, fragrance-free formulation is PABA- and paraben-free.  

SPF

All sunscreens, broad-spectrum or not, have an SPF. This number is a relative measurement of  how well a sunscreen will protect against UVB rays. We tend to think of it in terms of time, or how long it takes to redden/burn skin wearing that SPF level versus the amount of time it would take to burn without it. For example, if your skin would normally burn after ten minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun, an SPF of 30 should provide 300 minutes (or five hours) of protection.

However (and this is where it gets tricky), there are other factors that enter into the equation, including weather conditions, time of day, skin type, thoroughness of application and more, so you should not assume that with SPF 30, you can safely remain in the sun for five hours. Furthermore, all sunscreens lose their effectiveness over time and must be reapplied every two hours.

An SPF of 30 protects you from 97 percent of UVB rays whereas an SPF of 50 protects you from 98 percent. There is no sunscreen that will protect you from 100 percent of UVB rays, though an SPF of 100 will protect you from 99 percent.

If you don’t apply the sunscreen thickly or thoroughly enough — about one full ounce or roughly a shot glass worth for an average adult — or if you sweat or go swimming, the SPF protection will be weakened, so you should reapply immediately after swimming or heavy sweating.

DID YOU KNOW?

Broad-spectrum sunscreen can help prevent premature skin aging, wrinkles, and age spots.

Features

Water resistant: Don’t assume your broad-spectrum sunscreen will protect you when you’re swimming or sweating. Although sunscreens are no longer designated “waterproof”, only those designated “water resistant” will maintain effectiveness while you swim or sweat (for up to 40 minutes). Those designated “very water resistant” will work for up to 80 minutes.

Reef safe: When you swim in the ocean, a fair amount of sunscreen ends up in the water. Environmentally friendly sunscreens don’t have chemicals (like oxybenzone or octinoxate) that have been proven to damage reefs. Some places with coral reefs, like Hawaii, have banned the sale of sunscreens containing these ingredients.

Spray: A great feature for people with limited mobility or who are traveling solo to the beach or pool is spray sunscreen to hit those hard-to-reach places. Parents often prefer sprays because they’re easier to apply to children. Be sure to apply an even coat, and avoid inhaling the product.

Lightweight: If you have oily skin, you may want to avoid moisturizing or creamy sunscreens. Many broad-spectrum sunscreens offer non-greasy formulas that absorb easily into your skin, often leaving a matte or dry-touch finish. Select ones that are non-comedogenic if you have acne-prone skin, as these won’t clog your pores.  

Sensitive skin: If you have sensitive skin, select a product that’s labeled hypoallergenic and fragrance free. You may also benefit from a product free from parabens and other chemical agents.

Face: There are also broad-spectrum sunscreens formulated specifically for the more delicate face area. These tend to be oil-free and pricier, but are good for sensitive skin as body sunscreens may cause irritation on the face.

FOR YOUR SAFETY

Babies and children have thinner skin, which can more readily absorb chemicals present in some sunscreens. Opt for broad-spectrum varieties that contain ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for physical sun protection.

Broad-spectrum sunscreen prices

Broad-spectrum sunscreens generally come in three- to eight-ounce bottles or tubes. Take into consideration how much sunscreen you’re getting for the price of the product.  

A value-priced broad-spectrum sunscreen ranges between $6 and $10 for a six-ounce bottle.

Mid-priced broad-spectrum sunscreens can start at $10 for a smaller three-ounce size and go up to $15. Inorganic broad-spectrum sunscreens fall into this price bucket and above.  

Luxury, broad-spectrum sunscreens start at $16 for a three-ounce package and can cost upwards of $30, often for the facial sunscreens.

Tips on applying sunscreen

Broad-spectrum sunscreen is only effective if it’s applied properly.

  • Put on sunscreen 15 minutes before you step outside. It takes 15 minutes for it to absorb into your skin and protect you.

  • Apply sunscreen generously. Most people don’t put on enough. For adults, this means one ounce to cover your whole body. Be sure to rub it in thoroughly.

  • Cover all exposed areas. Don’t forget the back of your hands, bald spots, tops of your feet, back of your neck, lips, ears, etc. Ask for help in those hard-to-reach areas.

  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after you swim or sweat, even if you’re using a water-resistant product. The majority of sunburns happen because of failure to reapply.  

  • Apply sunscreen even when it’s cloudy out. UVA and UVB rays can pass through clouds. Use sunscreen all year. Sun reflected off of snow can be even stronger and likely to cause sunburns.

  • Check the expiration date of your sunscreen, and never apply an expired product. Sunscreen is effective no more than three years after its manufactured date. Also, store sunscreen away from heat as it will degrade the product.

Non-greasy and reef safe

For a bargain-priced, broad-spectrum sunscreen, Banana Boat offers a plethora of features. Its matte touch finish keeps your skin feeling dry, which is a huge plus on a hot, sweaty day — and it even deters sand from sticking to you. It’s reef safe, water resistant up to 80 minutes, and has that classic Banana Boat scent that will remind you of summer year round. 

Other products we considered

For a low-priced, more natural broad-spectrum sunscreen, we love the highly popular Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Green Tea SPF 45. Its formula is free from parabens, phthalates, and synthetic fragrances. It glides on easily but isn’t greasy. It contains green tea for antioxidant protection and soothing aloe vera — and it smells like a tropical vacation.

To provide dry facial skin with full-spectrum protection, we recommend EltaMD UV Daily Facial Sunscreen Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 for Dry Skin. This high-end, dermatologist-recommended sunscreen uses mineral-based zinc oxide that absorbs easily into your skin. It’s formulated with gentle hyaluronic acid to boost hydration and smooth out wrinkles and can be used instead of a daily moisturizer. It comes in tinted and untinted formulas.

Harmful UVA rays can penetrate glass, so if you spend a lot of time in a car, protect your skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen, especially on your “driver arm.”

FAQ

Q. Can I put a broad-spectrum sunscreen on my baby?
A.
Sunscreen is not considered safe for infants under 6 months old. Keep your baby in the shade as much as possible when outdoors. For children aged 6 months and older, it’s best to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen formulated for children. These tend to contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide which is considered safer and less irritating to young skin.  
 

Q. Do I need to apply sunscreen to my face if I use cosmetics that have sunscreen?
A.
Many foundations, powders, moisturizers and the like these days contain SPF-rated sunscreen. If you’re not spending a lot of time outdoors these should be sufficient. Be aware, however, that these may only protect you from UVB rays and not UVA. Opt for products containing full-spectrum protection or apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen under your makeup.
 

Q. Do I really need to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen all year round?
A.
Yes. UVA and UVB rays can penetrate through cloud cover. Also keep in mind that UVA rays can go through glass, so even if you don’t spend much time outdoors you’re probably still exposed to UVA rays. If you don’t want to slather on sunscreen every day, try a combination of clothing that covers exposed skin and a wide-brimmed hat. Also, some clothing carries an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) comparable to an SPF. For instance, an article of clothing may have a UPF rating of 30, protecting you from all but 1/30th of the sun’s rays.  Remember, even a high SPF, full-spectrum sunscreen won’t protect you 100 percent, so other precautionary measures are advisable, such as avoiding the sun between the peak hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m, year round.

The team that worked on this review
  • Ana
    Ana
    Writer
  • Enid
    Enid
    Editor
  • Jennifer
    Jennifer
    Writer
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Steph
    Steph
    Web Producer

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