9 Sunscreens Get Top Ratings by Consumer Reports

Magazine Evaluates Sunscreens on How Well They Protect From UVA and UVB Rays

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 24, 2011 -- Nine of 22 sunscreens tested by Consumer Reports Health earned a ''recommended" or "Best Buy" rating in the organization's latest evaluation.

All nine got excellent marks for protection from UVB rays (which cause sunburn) even after water immersion. All provided very good protection against UVA rays, which penetrate deeper and are linked with aging and tanning.

The results, issued today, are published in the July 2011 Consumer Reports.

The report follows another sunscreen guide, issued Monday by the Environmental Working Group. The findings from the two reports are often at odds.

"Our ratings are based only on UVA and UVB protection and how well they did in water," says Jamie Hirsh, senior associate editor of Consumer Reports Health. "Our scoring doesn't take into account ingredients."

The Environmental Working Group ratings did take into account active ingredients, among other measures.

Consumer Reports Sunscreen Rankings

Three sunscreens were given the Consumer Reports "Best Buy" rating:

  • Up & Up Sport SPF 30
  • No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45
  • Equate Baby SPF 50

Six others were recommended:

  • Banana Boat Sport Performance SPF 30
  • Coppertone Sport Ultra Sweatproof SPF 30
  • CVS Fast Cover Sport SPF 30
  • Walgreens Sport SPF 50
  • Ocean Potion Kids Instant Dry Mist SPF 50
  • Banana Boat Sport Performance SPF 100

Other products evaluated include: Soleo Organics All Natural SPF 30+, Badger SPF 30, Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport SPF 30, Avon Skin-So Soft Bug Guard plus IR3535 SPF 30, All Terrain AquaSport performance SPF 30, Burt's Bees Chemical-Free SPF 30, Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50, Bull Frog Marathon Mist with UV Extender SPF 50, LaRoche-Posay Anthelios SPF 40, Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist SPF 45, Aveeno Continuous Protection SPF 85, Coppertone UltraGuard SPF 70+, and Neutrogena Sensitive Skin SPF 60+.

Despite not making the cut for ''recommended'' or ''best buy,'' none of these got a poor rating on UVA or UVB protection or UVB protection after water immersion.

How the Sunscreens Were Evaluated

An outside laboratory evaluated whether the 22 sprays, creams, and lotions met their labeled claim of a sun protection factor or SPF. This refers to UVB rays.

The lab also evaluated how well the products protected against UVA rays.

It used the four-star system to rate UVA coverage, proposed by the FDA in 2007 but still not finalized. As a result, most product labels simply claim ''broad-spectrum protection."

To test water resistance, the evaluators applied the product to volunteers' backs. The volunteers were submerged in water for 80 minutes. Two products that didn't have a specified time on the label for water resistance were tested for 40 minutes. When volunteers got out of the water, they were exposed to UV rays to test water resistance.

All Terrain AquaSport performance SPF 30 was about 10% below its claimed 30 after water exposure, according to Consumer Reports. But it still received a ''good'' rating for UVB protection after immersion. The maker of the sunscreen disagrees with this finding. Most products were ''very good'' against UVA, but Avon's Skin-so Soft Bug Guard plus IR3535 got only a ''fair'' rating.

Consumer Reports vs. Environmental Working Group

The back-to-back sunscreen evaluations have substantial differences. The Environmental Working Group found only about one in five of about 600 beach and sport sunscreens acceptable. It ruled out products that had certain ingredients, such as a type of topical vitamin A known as retinyl palmitate. The Environmental Working Group cited animal studies linking it to an increased risk of skin cancers.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports notes that almost every sunscreen tested contains some ingredients linked with adverse health effects in animal studies. While the Environmental Working Group advises everyone to avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, Consumer Reports only advises pregnant women to consider avoiding those products.

Industry Comment

Farah Ahmed, chair of the Sunscreen Task Force of the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group, reviewed both the Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group reports for WebMD.

"What Consumer Reports did was a far better way to evaluate sunscreens," she says. Consumer Reports, she says, "did testing in a clinical setting, which is what you are supposed to do."

Ahmed points to an analysis published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology finding no convincing evidence that retinyl palmitate in sunscreens causes cancer.

David Kulow, president of All Terrain, disagrees with the Consumer Reports finding that his sunscreen, labeled with an SPF of 30, fell 10% short after water immersion.

He provided to WebMD the lab report finding the SPF claim was on target. "We have independent testing results from BioScreen Testing Services Inc., in Torrance, Calif., that refute this finding" of an inadequate SPF, he says.

Tips for Sun Protection

Besides its recommendation of sunscreen products, Consumer Reports advises:

  • Don't rely on sunscreen alone. Wear protective clothing. Limit time spent in the sun.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours or so and after sweating or swimming.
  • Use about 2-3 tablespoons of sunscreen on most of your body. Spray forms should be sprayed, rubbed in, and then reapplied.
  • Expensive isn't necessarily better. The pricey La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 40, at nearly $19 an ounce, got an overall score of 79. No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45 got a score of 89. It costs 59 cents, according to Consumer Reports.

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SOURCES: David Kulow, president, All Terrain.Farah Ahmed, chair, Sunscreen Task Force, Personal Care Products Council.Jamie Hirsh, senior associate editor, Consumer Reports Health.Consumer Reports, July 2011.Wang, S. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, November 2010; vol 63: pp 903-906. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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