The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Sunscreens

Dermatologists explain whether a higher price correlates with better skin protection.

If you’ve ever stood in the sunscreen aisle and felt completely overwhelmed, you already know how hard it can be to choose the right product for your skin. Considering that we’re supposed to be diligent about wearing sunscreen daily, it’s a product we should go through quickly ― and that makes it daunting to regularly spend a significant amount of money on it. But do more affordable options protect us the same way expensive ones do?

“I would say the most important things to look at in sunscreen are the actual active ingredients,” dermatologist Elliot Weiss of Laser and Skin Surgery Center in New York told HuffPost.

To learn how to understand sunscreen labels, we spoke with Weiss and other dermatologists, who compared and contrasted two similar face sunscreens at two very different price points: one that cost $95, the other $22.

The more expensive sunscreen the dermatologists examined is La Mer’s Broad Spectrum SPF 50 UV Protecting Fluid, which comes in a 1.7 ounce bottle. The less expensive alternative is the ever-popular Supergoop Play Everyday Lotion SPF 50, which much less for more product (2.4 ounces).

Both are SPF 50, intended for daily use on the face or body, and are relatively similar in size.

Surely, the $95 luxury SPF must be higher quality, right? We’ll find that out below.

We compared Supergoop and La Mer sunscreens.
Supergoop!/La Mer
We compared Supergoop and La Mer sunscreens.

Why would one sunscreen cost so much more?

When reviewing the Supergoop and La Mer sunscreens, dermatologist Nikhil Dhingra of Spring Street Dermatology saw no significant differences in active ingredients.

There is nothing that stands out in either of these products, except that the Supergoop comes in at a much more reasonable price point. On the flip side, the Supergoop is laden with pore-clogging oils, which are a big no from me, particularly for acne-prone skin,” Dhingra said. “The La Mer, too, has clogging oils in addition to masking fragrance to impart upon it a luxurious smell, which can irritate and cause allergic reactions to manifest since most masking fragrances are alcohol-based.”

Weiss also noted that the differences in these products are not in the active, sun-blocking ingredients, but rather in the additional “blend” of other ingredients that contribute to the feel and look of the product.

“The initial differences between these two products are the non-active ingredients,” Weiss said. “Each contains a proprietary blend of ingredients to create a more cosmetically pleasing sunscreen formulation.”

“The initial differences between the two are within the formula and texture, said Loretta Ciraldo, a Miami-based dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta skin care. “La Mer sunscreen has a smooth application and is highly moisturizing, while the Supergoop sunscreen has a lighter texture and draws moisture from within, giving skin an overall radiance.”

Do inactive ingredients improve the efficacy?

According to the dermatologists, both La Mer and Supergoop will block the sun the same exact way. The only difference is how the products might feel on your skin.

“Because the active ingredients are the same between the two products, I would say neither should be considered ‘better,’ really,” Weiss said. “It becomes a personal preference as to which sunscreen’s consistency, ease of application, smell and stickiness is preferred by an individual,” Weiss said.

Though it might seem like these factors aren’t worth paying $73 more for, they might actually be more important than you think, as they can all contribute to whether or not you’re likely to wear the product every day. If the specific formula of a more expensive product means that it gets you to wear SPF every day, then it would indeed be worth the extra cost.

But as Dhingra tells us, it’s also important to recognize another factor that ups the cost of skin care that has nothing to do with formulas at all: Marketing and branding.

“Active sunscreen ingredients are not that varied, from the cheapest drug store products to the most exclusive brands lining the shelves of high end stores,” Dhingra said. “Everything else added carries limited benefit and high risk of untoward reactions.”

Dermatologist Orit Markowitz, director of Pigmented Lesions and Skin Cancer at Mount Sinai, said that brand recognition goes into La Mer’s price point, but notes that there are other things to consider as well.

“La Mer products, including the sunscreen, also have an extensive development process and technology which translates on the shelf to a hight pricer point,” Markowitz explained. “In this example, I would recommend La Mer for my patients with weather-worn, aged or dry skin because it is a good moisturizing sunscreen that prevents water loss. I would recommend Supergoop for patients that are acne-prone and have oily and youthful skin types. Supergoop is also a good sunscreen for someone who prefers a thinner, lightweight moisturizer.”

In many cases, it’s really a matter of personal preference.

It’s important to consider which sunscreen feels and looks better on your skin. You may also consider which product is “cleaner” or more sustainable, if that’s important to you. Supergoop, for example, is vegan, cruelty-free, reef-safe and gluten-free, while La Mer is also vegan and “free of sulfates SLS and SLES, parabens, formaldehydes, formaldehyde-releasing agents, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, and contains less than one percent of synthetic fragrances.”

“Price rarely matters when it comes to good skin care. I often find the most costly and high-end products are the ones to cause skin reactions that bring patients to the office,” Dhingra said, adding that he generally recommends a mineral-based sunscreen with zinc or titanium or a blended sunscreen (mineral and chemical based) like Elta MD UV Clear for most people.

Ultimately, the things you should consider when choosing a sunscreen all come down to personal preferences and needs, including any sensitivities or allergies a particular individual might have, and your lifestyle.

“Do you like the way it feels on your skin?” Weiss said. “If someone doesn’t like applying the sunscreen or it doesn’t feel good, then inevitably they will not use it as much as they otherwise would.”

Before You Go

Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 55

Editor-Approved Face Sunscreens