Friday, August 17, 2012

What I Have Learned About Buying Sunscreen

I've stood in front of a wall of sunscreen products at my local Target, trying my very best to figure out which product is the best one to buy. What is there to consider? The SPF rating, the brand, the price, these are the obvious. But I've learned a few other things along the way:

1. The SPF rating isn't everything. Now there's broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB), there's helioplex/mexoryl and some other stabilizing ingredient. The labelling itself is a science and the FDA has implemented new rules regarding the labelling of sunscreen products. There are more stringent tests for UVA and UVB protection before a bottle can be labelled broad spectrum. No one can use the terms waterproof, sweat-proof or sunblock anymore. While the ruling is already in effect, it has not been implemented in full force. Products with old labelling will likely remain on the shelves throughout the summer.

typical chemical sunscreen product with old labelling

Familiarize yourself with the differences between chemical and mineral sunscreens. Avobenzone and Oxybenzone are your typical chemical sunscreens. Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are the usual mineral ones. If you know that you react to one or the other negatively, then you know what to avoid. You will want something broad spectrum (SPF 15 or higher to be able to reduce the risk of skin cancer and premature aging). Non-comedogenic means it won't clog pores and water-resistant is a good idea regardless of whether you swim or not.

mineral sunscreen line from Neutrogena

2. There are at least three types of product worth considering. Sunscreen for the face (stick or liquid), a lotion to apply all over the body and a spray for the nooks and crannies that may be harder to reach. A spray is easier to reapply whenever you are outdoors. The tricky part is proper application as most do require rubbing in after you've sprayed.

lotion, stick, spray and lip balm

I think that stick products are especially great for use on kids. But just because it's marketed as sunscreen for kids doesn't mean adults can't use them. I typically find myself using my daughter's sunscreen and I don't usually have issues with them.

I've found an eye stick for use under the eye area (see my post on the Kiehl's Eye Stick SPF 30). Another popular type is lip balm with sunscreen, which you will probably want. My favorite is the Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Lip Moisturizer SPF 15. 

Kiehl's Lip Balms with SPF and Neutrogena Lip Moisturizer SPF 15

Other products, perhaps sometimes deemed as unnecessary but worth considering, are hand creams with SPF (example below) and something to protect your hair.

Hand Cream with SPF 25

3. It's harder to tell if it keeps you from burning/aging but you'll keep buying it if it wont break you out or leave the dreaded white cast. Often, it's more about things like: is it easy to apply, will it cause a negative skin reaction and will it look nice, as opposed to will it really keep me from burning or aging. Of course, most people buy sunscreen because they don't want to burn or get skin cancer. You've probably already heard that early aging is also brought on by sun damage. But if the superficial criteria isn't fulfilled, it's unlikely that we will keep buying the same product. Unfortunately, the only way to know is to try or ask someone for a recommendation. Product reviews can be handy too.

Won't sting eyes
light and not greasy -  good for daily use

4. Buy in the summer when it's bound to be on sale and coupons are everywhere. Summer is when there is the most demand for sunscreen so retailers are more likely to put the product out at a get-noticed price. Manufacturers are more likely to issue coupons in the summer too.

Getting a proper deal sometimes entails quite a bit of time and effort. From scouring store circulars to actual store shelves, going online to find coupons or simply buying the Sunday paper, it all takes a bit of research. I stick to a couple of merchants to make my life easier. I shop at Target so I make sure I look at their circular and their website. The target website has coupons too. If I see some for an item that I am interested in, I print it out. Then I go to the manufacturer's website and see if they have a coupon. Target will allow you to stack one manufacturer coupon with one Target coupon. Double savings.

I also shop at Costco but I generally don't do my experimentation there. I purchase tried and tested items that I'm willing to buy in bulk. Since I know that I like a certain Neutrogena sunscreen, I don't mind grabbing a twin pack with some extra freebies, especially if they have a special going on. Costco mails out a periodic coupon book to members. The discounts can be pretty generous.

On occasion, I will want something that neither Target nor Costco will sell. La Roche Posay products, for instance, I have bought at CVS. But the same system applies. I check the circular. I check the store's website and the manufacturer's website for coupons. When I bought a bottle of Anthelios 60, I walked into the store with a 30% off coupon. At the register, I was surprised to find that the product was on sale (I didn't see it advertised and all signage had been removed since it was a Saturday and they were getting ready to switch them up for Sunday). The sale invalidated my coupon but turned out to be a better price than if I had used my coupon after all. On top of all this, there must have been a La Roche Posay rep in the store earlier as there were $5 coupons taped to the products. How much did I end up paying for a $30 bottle of sunscreen? $12.

best high SPF sunscreen I've tried for the face

Prices typically go up along with higher SPF ratings but I've found that it isn't always necessary to splurge on the highest SPF you can find. After all, you're still going to have to reapply it and if the recommended amount is a total of about 3 tablespoons to cover you from head to toe or 1.5 oz with each use, you're going to go through a lot of sunscreen and therefore a lot of money by going with the most expensive options.

store brand sunscreen product

My reckoning is that you can go as low as SPF 30 and reapply every two hours. If the price difference isn't incredible, I'd go up to 75+ or anywhere in between. I look at the amount of actual product that's in the bottle or can, then figure in manufacturer coupons, store coupons and other promotions like gift card offers. I've gotten sunscreen for practically BOGOF with a combination of all these. And although I have my favorite brands, we can't really put store brand sunscreens out of the running. If you know what's in the product and you trust the store, I don't see why it isn't worth a try. Now don't go nutty buying 25 bottles in one trip. Look at the expiry date marked on the container. I always pick the ones that expire latest, typically two years later. But buy only what you think you will be able to consume within the year. You can always go back for more


  1. This post is so informative!

    Have you found any good hand lotions with spf in it? the only one I've found so far (that doesn't cost an arm and a leg) is Mary Kay; otherwise I just keep a bottle of the Aveeno spf body lotion in the car and slather up every time I drive somewhere.

    1. Hand creams/lotions with SPF are tough to find. Neutrogena used to make one but it seems to be off the market now. I haven't tried Mary Kay. I'd been using the Deborah Lippmann Rich Girl Hand and Cuticle Cream but it is pricey and the tube is too big to lug around. Boots No. 7 makes one that's about half the cost. I will be reviewing it in the coming days.