Sunscreen is a skin health essential. And while medical professionals urge you to wear it every day, it is especially important to have good sunscreen for your upcoming trip. Whether you’ll be enjoying the beach, out sightseeing, or even hitting the ski slopes, throwing a can, bottle, or tube of the best sunscreen in your bag gets you that much closer to avoiding a sunburn that will detract from your trip -- and from developing melanoma (skin cancer) in the future.
The best sunscreens feel good and are good to the planet. Gone are the days when protecting yourself with sunscreen meant slathering on a product that threatens the health of the ecosystems we travel to witness and enjoy. Our list includes vegan, reef-safe sunscreen options in addition to some name brands with staying power and even my go-to budget option.
We also share a brief sunscreen buying guide that will help inform your purchase, and save your medicine cabinet from a glut of sunscreens you’d rather not wear.
The Best Sunscreen
If you’re looking for a spray sunscreen, this is another option I personally recommend. My husband was reluctant to stray from name brand sunscreen territory (think Banana Boat and Neutrogena, which are our go-tos), but I grabbed a can of this on a whim last summer, and we got a lot of great use out of it. It’s an affordable option that we liked a lot better than some of Up & Up’s spray-on sunscreens, and it seems especially well suited to long days outside.
Reviewers give it a 4.6 average star rating and note that the valve pressure technology contributes to easy application. One reviewer says he spent days on the beach in the Bahamas without a hint of sunburn and another notes that her husband, who uses it when he plays golf, has had no problems with the formula, which is PABA-free, non-comedogenic, and never tested on animals.
Based on my experience, this sunscreen dries quickly and doesn’t have an overwhelming scent, but it can feel a bit sticky (a point other reviewers second). Some reviewers have had problems with the can’s spray nozzle, but ours is still going strong!
Unlike Banana Boat’s Sport Performance sunscreen, Trader Joe’s Spray Sunscreen is only water resistant up to 80 minutes, so this might not be your best bet if you’re planning to be in the water or sweating through an activity.
- Affordable option
- Water resistant
- May be a bit sticky
- Not intended as a facial sunscreen
- Not reef friendly or explicitly vegan
- Spray-on sunscreen
- Never tested on animals
- Valve pressure technology ensure smooth application
- Brand: Trader Joe’s
- SPF: 50
- Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone
If you prefer a lotion and want a higher SPF, trusted skincare brand Neutrogena’s Beach Defense oil-free, PABA-free, water-resistant body lotion is a solid choice. My husband and I managed to forget to pack sunscreen when we went to Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas -- a decision that will probably haunt me for years -- and we wound up buying a very overpriced bottle of Beach Defense lotion in one of the Cove’s gift shops.
Surprisingly, it was one of the best sunscreen experiences we’ve had. The smell isn’t overwhelming, it goes on smoothly, and it’s easy to feel where it’s been applied (without being greasy). We also bought a spray-on Neutrogena sunscreen but wound up getting burned when we used it, most likely because of, ahem, operator errors. We just weren’t as careful or thorough with the spray-on sunscreen, whereas the lotion required slowing down and applying attentively before we stepped out.
Nearly 900 Amazon reviewers give this sunscreen a 4.7 average star rating, so I know I’m not the only person on the block (or the island) who likes it. And the good news is, you can get it a lot cheaper on Amazon than you can at Atlantis.
This Water + Sun Protection option is water resistant for up to 80 minutes but isn’t intended for use as a facial sunscreen. Also, a couple buyers note that it isn’t reef friendly because, like a number of other sunscreens on our list, it contains oxybenzone. Some reviewers even say it has too many unhealthy chemicals in it for them to feel comfortable using it (it also has a tropical fragrance), so be sure to check the ingredient list and compare your options. Note that this another sunscreens that contain oxybenzone may not be allowed in certain protected areas/waters.
- Trusted brand
- High SPF
- Non-greasy formula
- Tropical fragrance might not appeal to everyone
- Not intended as a facial sunscreen
- Some reviewers say it contains too many chemicals
- Sunscreen lotion
- Made to stand up to outdoor activity
- PABA- and oil-free
- Brand: Neutrogena
- SPF: 70
- Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Homosalate, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone
If you want the creme de la creme of sunscreens, meet your mousse. Thanks to my sister, I got to use this sunscreen during a late summer 2019 kayaking trip in Jersey, and I promised myself a can of it for poolside 2020. I could not believe how luxuriously it went on, or that it felt so weightless on my skin. Also, it comes out in a luscious foam that encourages hands-on application (which is often safer and more thorough than spraying) but is far less messy than your typical sunscreen lotions.
Other reviewers agree, calling Supergoop!’s Super Power Mousse “a sunscreen splurge that measures up” and simply “the best!”
Like all of Supergoop!’s products, this sunscreen mousse is free of parabens, oxybenzone, and synthetic fragrances. Its formula includes blue sea kale, shea butter, olive and avocado oils, and essences of cucumber and citrus.
The easy-to-apply mousse is water resistant for up to 80 minutes, so if you’ll actually be swimming, you might want to opt for a sportier sunscreen, like our also consider pick from Banana Boat.
- Luxurious; feels good on the skin
- Doesn’t require a lot of rubbing in
- Relatively expensive
- Not explicitly reef friendly or vegan
- Scented; not everyone will like the smell
- Innovative sunscreen foam
- Scented with essences of cucumber and citrus
- Formulated with antioxidants
- Brand: Supergoop!
- SPF: 50
- Active Ingredients: Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate, Octisalate
Sunscreen Buying Guide
Choosing the best sunscreen for your needs has a lot to do with where you need to wear it (on your face or the rest of your body) and what you’ll be doing after you put it on. Of course, it also has to do with feel. If you don’t like the way a sunscreen feels on your skin, odds are you’ll avoid it, in which case it’s another wasted product as you move on to the next — or you’re getting sunburned.
While we can’t tell you which sunscreens will feel best on your skin, we can call attention to the qualities of some of the best sunscreens on the market, which can help you narrow down your options and invest in a sunscreen that will keep you protected wherever you go.
Lotion, Spray, Or Something Else?
A helpful Minneapolis-area VA resource points out non-alcohol based lotions and creams are the most soothing sunscreen options, and make it “easier to see the area that has been covered.” This is the reason my husband and I wound up better protected in the Bahamas when we wore Neutrogena’s Beach Defense Water Resistant Sunscreen lotion than when we tried an aerosol sunscreen.
Of course, spray-on sunscreens have their advantages. The same VA resource suggests that sprays are a good option for hairier parts of the body including scalps, which need protection, too.
Finally, there are options like Supergoop!’s Super Power Sunscreen Mousse, which are lighter than lotions and creams but still need to be applied by hand and rubbed in thoroughly. Note that even spray sunscreens should be rubbed into dry skin at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure and/or getting in the water. They should not just be sprayed on and thought of as good to go.
The best sunscreens are typically water resistant for up to 80 minutes. Some options, like Banana Boat’s Sport Performance spray, are formulated to last longer (up to two hours). But read the application instructions carefully! All sunscreens should be reapplied each time you get out of the water or towel dry, no matter how long it’s been since you applied. This is easy to forget but essential to protecting your skin.
If you notice your sunscreen is pilling or dripping, your protection has been compromised. Reapply or try a different formula.
Depending on where you’re going to be traveling, swimming, and exploring, you may be obligated to use a reef-friendly sunscreen. Or you might be committed to buying products that are better for the environment. Reef-friendly sunscreen definitely falls in this camp. According to the Kohala Center, an independent, community-based Hawaiian center for research, conservation, and education, “laboratory tests confirm that chemicals found in most sunscreens, such as oxybenzone, are contributing to coral decline. These chemicals affect coral growth and reproduction, and also harm fish and other marine life — even if you don’t plan on swimming or snorkeling.”
The Kohala Center says that “by wearing as much protective clothing as possible, then applying limited amounts of reef-friendly, mineral-based sunscreens” we can help Hawaiian (and other) “coral and marine ecosystems flourish and remain healthy for generations to come.”
The center notes that it’s relatively easy to determine if the sunscreen you’re considering is reef safe. “Look at the active ingredients. If the sunscreen is mineral-based, containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients, you’re good!” and goes on to share that “if the sunscreen lists oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and/or nanoparticles as active ingredients, it’s best to avoid them — even if you don’t plan on swimming or snorkeling.”
Why? “These ingredients will wash off in the shower, and are even absorbed into your skin and passed through your urine, so they could eventually end up in the ocean.” We’re not sure what this means for supposedly reef-friendly Sun Bum Original or Supergoop!’s Everyday Sunscreen, which have avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene as active ingredients, but I for one will be experimenting with more eco-conscious mineral (zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) sunscreens this year.
According to a Piedmont Healthcare resource, the active ingredients in your sunscreen will be chemical (which absorb into the skin, absorb UV rays, turn them to heat, and release them from the body) or mineral/physical (these sunscreens, which contain mineral active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, actually sit on op of the skin and physically block the sun’s harmful rays).
Active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene. They’re typically not reef friendly, but they do absorb more easily and provide better protection when exposed to moisture, whether that’s water or sweat. Note that, unfortunately, chemical sunscreens can be irritating for folks with sensitive skin.
Mineral sunscreens are safer for the environment and sensitive skin, but can feel thicker, are harder to rub in, and don’t stand up to moisture as well.
For these reasons, I like a physical/mineral sunscreen for my face and reach for chemical sunscreens when I need longer-lasting protection outdoors.
Made For Face
If you’re committed to taking good care of the skin on your face, don’t undo the work of your facial-care regimen by spraying on or lathering up with a sunscreen that isn’t made for delicate facial skin. If you have the money to spend, consider trying a facial sunscreen from Supergoop! — a brand that’s dedicated to SPF and makes the best sunscreens I’ve ever worn.