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Updated: 22 Jun 2022

SPF, UVA, UVB: sun cream explained and how to buy the best

Everything you need to know about buying sunscreen and using it properly, from what SPF, UVA and UVB mean, to how much and how often to apply, plus which sun creams are best
Which? Team
Sun cream being used on legs

Protecting your skin with an effective sun cream will reduce your exposure to UV rays and ultimately lower the risk of skin cancer and sun damage, but many people don't use enough, and some products don't protect in the way they claim to.

In our expert guide, we explain how sun creams work and how often you need to apply them to be fully protected, plus which ones you can really rely on.

Picking the right type of sunscreen for you is also important. We explain what you need to know about 'once a day' sun creams, water-resistant sun creams, sensitive sun screen and the best kids sun cream too. 

To see how popular branded sun creams fared in our tests, including the cheap supermarket versions that passed with flying colours, see our top picks below or find the full selection in our sun cream reviews.

Best sun creams

Our independent sun cream reviews identify the products that pass British Standard tests for UVA and UVB sun protection and are easy and pleasant to apply. Products that meet all these criteria are named Best Buys. These are our top picks from our tests of adults SPF 30 sunscreens and kids SPF 50+ sun cream:

    • best buy

    This SPF30 spray aced both of our SPF and UVA tests and, of all the products we’ve tested this year, it’s the easiest to apply. In our application tests, the panel gave it full marks for everything from how easily absorbable it is to its lack of greasiness or tackiness. When you add its first-class sun protection to the mix, this is one of the best sunscreens around and that’s why we’ve made it a Best Buy.

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    • best buy

    We were delighted with the protection this spray provided in our tests. It’s simple to apply, absorbs easily into the skin and doesn’t leave much in the way of white residue. Our testers found it neither greasy or tacky when applying it to their skin. And because of all of this, we’re delighted to name it a Best Buy

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    • best buy

    This Best Buy sun mist gives excellent sun protection, passing both SPF and UVA tests and being very easy to apply. And it does this at a great value price, making it a brilliant budget choice.

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    • best buy

    This sun cream has been specially formulated for kids’ delicate skin. It does a grand job of providing robust skin-protection and easily met the requirements of our SPF and UVA tests. It’s the easiest of the SPF 50+ products to apply that passed both of our sun protection tests, with our expert panel also awarding good marks for lack of tackiness and smell.

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Sun creams to avoid

Shockingly, our sun screen tests regularly uncover sun creams that fail UVA or UVB tests - in some cases both - meaning they don't provide the protection they claim to. These are the ones to steer clear of:

  • safety alert

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    • don't buy

    We’re happy with the level of SPF protection provided, which is probably due to the inclusion of Isoamyl p-Methoxycinnamate (an approved chemical UV filter, which Green People state is from a natural source). But it fell short for UVA protection. Sunscreens need to pass both tests to be acceptable, so it’s a Don’t Buy.

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  • safety alert

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    • don't buy

    In our tests, this failed to provide even two thirds of its SPF30 claim. It doesn’t contain any chemical UV filters – it relies solely on the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. It’s free from artificial colours and synthetic fragrances, but based on its disappointing sun protection test results, it’s a Don’t Buy.

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  • safety alert

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    • don't buy

    Described as ‘reef friendly’ and mineral based, this expensive sunscreen sounds like a good and green choice. It’s easy to apply and doesn’t feel sticky on your skin. However, in our tests it registered little more than a third of the expected SPF30 and that's why it's a Don’t Buy

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  • safety alert

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    • don't buy

    With 100% mineral filters, ‘reef-friendly’ claims and PETA certification, this mineral sunscreen seems to have a lot going for it, but the results of our tests left us concerned. We found it only provided around two thirds of its SPF30 claim in our tests and that’s why it’s a Don’t Buy.

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  • safety alert

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    • don't buy

    When we tested this pricey mineral sunscreen, it barely provided a third of its claimed SPF and that’s why it’s a Don’t Buy. It was easy to apply and not in the least bit tacky to touch, but it didn’t provide enough sun protection in our tests. At £26 for 125ml, it’s also the most expensive sunscreen we’ve tested. Don’t waste your money.

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To see the full list of sun creams tested, head to our sun cream reviews.

SPF, UVA and UVB ratings explained

What does SPF mean?

The sun protection factor (SPF) gives an indication of the amount of protection sun creams offer against UVB radiation. It tells you how much longer skin that's covered with the sun cream takes to redden in response to UV, compared with unprotected skin.

What factor sun cream should I use?

The NHS and Cancer Research UK both recommend you pick a product with an SPF of at least 15, while the British Association of Dermatologists suggests we opt for at least SPF30. If your skin burns easily, it's best to stay on the safe side and opt for a higher SPF.

Father and sun applying sun cream

What are UVA and UVB?

UVA (ultraviolet A) is a type of ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which has been linked with premature ageing. Both UVA and UVB have been linked with skin cancer.

UVB (ultraviolet B) is another type of radiation from the sun and is the main cause of sunburn. It has a shorter wavelength than UVA.

What does the UVA seal mean?

The UVA seal indicates that a product meets the EU recommendation for sun creams to offer a UVA protection factor equivalent to at least a third of their SPF. 

However, some products display the Boots star rating for UVA instead– the protection claimed by these products is higher than the minimum required by the EU.

How does sun cream work? The difference between chemical and physical (mineral) sun screen

Sun cream provides protection from sunlight using UV filters, which are classified into two types: chemical or physical, also known as mineral sun creams. 

Sun creams may use either, or a combination of the two types. While chemical and physical UV filters have the same purpose (to block UV rays) they achieve it in different ways. 

Chemical sun creams are composed of organic compounds such as octocrylene and homosalate, which are absorbed into the skin and provide protection by absorbing UV rays, either releasing the energy as heat or changing the 3D shape of the chemical, which then breaks down. 

Physical or mineral sun creams use inorganic minerals, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, instead. These create a barrier on the skin that acts like a mirror, reflecting and scattering the UV light. 

They reflect visible light as well as UV, which can make the formulations opaque and leave a visible white residue - known as a white cast - on the skin. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles, which are much smaller, are used in some formulations to avoid this issue, as they scatter visible light rather than reflect it, making them transparent. 

How to use sun cream

The UV index gives a good indication of whether you need to apply sunscreen on any given day. The index ranges from low (a rating of one or two), to very high (eight and over). If the index is three or greater, it's worth considering using sunscreen – particularly if you burn easily.

SPF levels

See also: Met Office UV index forecast

How often do I need to apply sun cream?

It’s best to first apply sun cream 15 minutes before you head outside. Experts recommend that you then reapply it every two hours, but you may need to reapply it sooner than this if you go swimming, are active or find yourself sweating a lot.

How much sun cream should I apply?

It’s very unlikely you’re applying too much. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 35ml for the total body – that’s around seven teaspoons' worth: one for the face/head and neck, one for each arm and each leg, and one each for your front and your back.

How much sun cream to use

The image above shows the average amount of sunscreen we typically apply in a single full-body application in the hand on the left. Next to this – in two hands – is the amount we should be applying.

Not applying enough sun cream reduces the level of protection you'll receive. According to the WHO, applying a smaller quantity of sun cream leads to a disproportionate reduction in protection – if the quantity applied is reduced by half, protection may fall by as much as two thirds.

Does sun cream go out of date?

Yes. Before using a sun cream, check the bottle for a 'period after opening' symbol. This will tell you how long it can be used after opening.

Storing sun cream at high temperatures or in direct sunlight can decrease its shelf life, and older products may not work as well. So if you took last year's sun cream to the beach with you, it's probably time to buy a new bottle.

Types of sun cream

There are a wide range of different formulations available – from oils, lotions and creams to ultra-fine misting sprays, roll-ons and pastes.

Fine sprays can be light, quick and less messy to apply, but aren't great on a windy beach where they are easily blown away, and can be irritating for those prone to prickly heat.

Some kids options are brightly coloured to make it easier to see if you've missed a spot.

Ultimately what's right for you will depend on your skin type, situation and preferences. Consider where and how you will be using the product and on whose skin, to get the right formulation for you.

Sun cream claims to watch out for

Once-a-day sun creams

A number of products claim to provide sun protection for up to 10 hours after a single application. However, when we tested once-a-day sun creams to see if they really did last all day, we uncovered some worrying results.

In 2016, we conducted our own tests on several once-a-day sun creams, testing their sun protection claims after initial application and again after a day's wear.

Once a day sun creams

We saw an average 74% decrease in SPF protection at the end of the tests. We shared our concerns with Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD). Both advise against relying on any sun cream for extended periods in the sun.  

At Which?, we don’t think ‘once-a-day,’ ‘eight-hour’ or similar single-use claims should be made on sun creams in the UK (they are banned in other countries, such as Australia), as they may give a false sense of security, and normal daily or holiday activities such as swimming, sweating and clothes rubbing can cause these products to rub off and reduce protection. 

Even with our test subjects just sitting on a chair in a T-shirt, we saw substantial reductions in the level of sun protection, so we don't think you can rely on once-a-day sun cream to keep you protected all day.

Since 2018, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) has brought out guidance encouraging a shift from once-a-day claims to 'durable' sun cream, with more guidance given on when reapplication is necessary, but we're still seeing plenty of claims that are similar to 'once-a-day'.

Water-resistant sun creams

It's common for sun creams to claim to be 'water resistant', but this doesn't mean that they're waterproof. 

The industry guideline for water-resistant sun creams allows the SPF of a product to drop by 50% after a total of 40 minutes in water. Water-resistance testing also takes place in what is essentially a bath – using tap water. 

We tested two popular sun creams in chlorinated water (to mimic a swimming pool) and salty water (to emulate the sea). We also added another scenario using fast-moving tap water to see what effect this had. Most of the time, the products weren't as effective in our more realistic conditions as they were in tap water.

If you're using sun cream at the beach, apply it copiously before swimming, and again when you leave the water.

Reef-safe sun creams

Mineral sunscreens in particular often promote their environmental credentials, the most common being that they’re ‘reef-safe’ or 'ocean-friendly'.

This tends to mean that two commonly used chemical UV filters linked to coral bleaching – oxybenzone and octinoxate – aren’t used.  

In some places, including Hawaii, the sale of sunscreens with these compounds is banned.

However, there's no agreed definition of 'reef-safe', research is still ongoing as to the impact of these chemicals, and our tests found many mineral suncreams failed to protect as claimed, so take any claims with a pinch of salt.

Kids sun cream

Babies less than six months old should be kept out of direct sunlight, according to the NHS, and the skin of young children should be protected from the sun when UV levels are high. 

When little ones are exposed to the sun, it’s best to apply a sun protection cream that’s specifically formulated for youngsters and with a high protection factor. Sun creams designed for children and babies are less likely to irritate young skin.

Woman and child applying sun cream

When choosing sun cream for your child, look for a short ingredients list and the terms 'fragrance free' and 'hypoallergenic'. The WHO recommends 35ml of sun cream (seven teaspoons' worth) to cover an adult, so use around a quarter to a half of this depending on the size of your child.

Remember, sun cream is just one part of staying safe in the sun and it's also really important to encourage kids (and adults) to:

  • Cover up with loose clothing.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses.
  • Avoid the hottest part of the day and seek shade. 
  • Keep hydrated.

Learn more in our guide to baby and child sun creams, where you can also see which kids sun creams passed our tests.

Sun cream for sensitive skin

Sensitive sun creams tend to use physical blockers, which act as a screen to protect the skin, rather than chemical absorbers, which soak up UV radiation but are also more likely to cause skin irritation.

There’s a long list of ingredients that are used as chemical absorbers, so it’s easiest to simply look for products that are labelled ‘sensitive’ rather than search for specific ingredients.

SPF make-up: does it really offer protection from the sun?

For any product to provide the SPF it claims, you need to apply 2mg per sq cm – which means around a teaspoonful of product needs to be applied to your face. And, just as with sun cream, it needs to be reapplied regularly.

In reality, you’re unlikely to apply the amount of make-up required – in the case of foundation, that would mean a 30ml bottle would only last six applications. When used realistically, make-up isn’t going to protect you from the sun on its own.

Vitamin D deficiency and sun cream

Vitamin D is essential for bone health and also helps keep your teeth healthy. The main sources are sunlight exposure and diet.

During summer, everyday casual exposure is adequate – the WHO advises five to 15 minutes in the summer sun, two or three times a week. Most of us will naturally spend longer than this in the sun during the summer, so it’s still important to use sun cream.

Certain groups are at a higher risk than others from lack of vitamin D, including:

  • people with naturally dark skin
  • people who wear concealing clothing
  • people over 65 years old
  • pregnant and breastfeeding women
  • people who are confined inside for long periods of time
  • people who are overweight.
Woman putting sun cream on her face

Some people worry that using sun cream might prevent them from getting enough vitamin D, but this isn’t the case unless you really overdo it. 

From April to September, when the UV Index is generally higher, it takes 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure each day for those with fair-to-olive skin to get enough vitamin D. 

It takes longer for those with darker skin that rarely burns – it can take 25-40 minutes for the darkest skin type. 

For more details on the importance of vitamin D and where to buy supplements, see our in-depth vitamin D guide.

Other ways to stay safe in the sun

  • Consider the time of day – If you're spending time in the sun without wearing sun cream, you should only do so before 11am or after 3pm, as the middle of the day is when you're at the greatest risk of getting burnt.
  • Cover up – wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and grab a hat if you need to keep your face out of the sun. You might also want to wear a T-shirt, which can help to cover up typically over-exposed areas such as shoulders.
  • Drink plenty of water –make sure you drink regularly on a sunny day. Doing so can relieve headaches and help to heal sunburn, as drinking hydrates your body.
  • Know how to treat sunburn – NHS advice says that most cases of sunburn will heal within a week. Get out of the sun, cool yourself with a shower or a damp towel and apply some aftersun, moisturiser or aloe vera gel. You can take painkillers to deal with any discomfort. The NHS also recommends avoiding using ice, popping blisters or wearing tight clothing – or any further sun exposure – while healing. If you feel very unwell, or your child has sunburn, you should talk to your GP or NHS 111. See the NHS sunburn advice page for more.

Where to buy sun cream

You can buy sun cream in pharmacies, supermarkets and discount stores, with some of our tested options coming from Asda, Boots, Garnier, Nivea and Wilko.

We've found several supermarket products that are cheap and protect well, so there's no need to go out of your way or opt for the priciest formulations.