Cheap and easy and not smeary: Consumer Reports' top 4 sunscreens are budget-friendly and pretty hassle-free

The most important element of a great dinner grilled on the patio, an afternoon at the playground, or even a greatly needed vacation at the beach is not the beverages, bikes, or even the bikini. The one thing you need for all of your spring and summer activities needs to be slathered on and then packed up -- yes, it's sunscreen.

Just in time for all of these sunshine-savoring activities, Consumer Reports has released its list of the top four products to protect your skin. Surprisingly, several of the sunscreens that rated highest in Consumer Reports' testing are not only budget-friendly but are store brand. And surely to the delight of parents, teachers, and camp counselors to wiggly, sweaty kids everywhere, all are sprays rather than lotions or sunscreen sticks.

Consumer Reports tested 12 brands of sunscreen at an outside lab. There they assessed how well each blocked UVA and UVB rays and if actual water-resistance matched up with the product's claim. Volunteers with the sunscreens on their skin soaked in water for 40 to 80 minutes, depending on how long the claim on each can read, to test the SPF.

Trained testers also evaluated feel, smell, and whether the sunscreen was sprayed or rubbed in. Although these might seem like the aesthetics of products that are so critical for our health, Styleist blogger Lisa Schweitzer makes an important point: "[A]fter all, if you think your sun protection stinks or feels greasy, you simply won't use it."

The top four sunscreens all ranked Very Good for UVA protection, Excellent for UVB protection, and fulfilled their SPF after 80 minutes of soaking. They also scored well for their feel and scent, with all four having discernible floral or citrus scent (rather than that beachy smell most of us grew up associating with "sun tan lotion") and absorbing well with minimal residue.

According to Consumer Reports testing, here are the sunscreens you should stock up on and coat yourself and your kids with this year.

Up Up Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30 is Target's store brand and available in a twin-pack for less than ten bucks. To be exact, that's just $4.72 a can.

Walgreens Sport Sunscreen Continuous Spray SPF 50 is the Walgreens store brand spray that is available for $7.99. This second-place sunscreen with higher SPF protection is still a steal compared to brand-name sprays and lotions.

Banana Boat UltraMist Continuous Spray Sunscreen - Sport Performance SPF 30 is available at most discount stores, drugstores, and online retailers for about $9.79 per spray can (although we found this great $12.99 twin-pack deal in a Yahoo Shopping search).

Aveeno Continuous Protection SPF 50 rings up at just under ten dollars for a bit smaller spray can (five ounces compared to six for the top three listed). But with this triple-pack deal of $26, you can stow a can in your beach bag, car, and bathroom cabinet for cheaper than buying individual cans.

Consumer Reports also offers these great reminders and tips for getting the best skin protection for your effort and budget.

  • Always choose a sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 and is water-resistant. No matter how much other kinds are on sale or smell nice, skip them for products that perform as well as you need them to.
  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you are exposed to the sun at all (that is, while you are still indoors). Put on another layer after two hours or if you have been in the water or are a heavy sweater.
  • Don't spray sunscreen directly on your face. Spray on your hand and then carefully apply to your face with your fingers being mindful of the eyes (ouch).
  • Spraying or dabbing sunscreen directly on clothes will only make stains. Resist the temptation to SPF-up your favorite ironic t-shirt or swimsuit.
  • Sunscreen loses its potency after two years. Even if the bottle is three-quarters full, toss it if the expiration date has passed. Consumer Reports suggests labeling sunscreen (with permanent marker since it will be handled by greasy fingers) that does not have an expiration date so you are reminded to throw it away two years from the date of purchase.
  • Arm yourself with other forms of sun protection -- a hat, clothing made from tightly-woven fabric, and shade.

Now that you know protection your skin doesn't have to entail a big investment of money (store brands!), time (quick spray!), or SPF levels in the hundreds, get out there and enjoy all that warm-weather fun without paying with a painful sunburn (or worse!).

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[photo credit: Getty Images]