By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
May 14, 2015 -- Nearly a third of sunscreens tested by Consumer Reports fell short of the promised SPF protection, missing the mark by anywhere from 16% to 70%, according to the organization's annual sunscreen report.
The report also expressed concerns about so-called "natural" sunscreens and claims of broad-spectrum protection against both UVB and UVA rays.
Fifteen of 34 sunscreens tested earned a spot on the "recommended" list.
"We tested more this year than we have in our previous tests," says Trisha Calvo, deputy editor of health and food at Consumer Reports. Last year, 7 out of 20 tested sunscreens were recommended.
The testing is extensive and includes having volunteers soak in water after applying sunscreen, then exposing them to ultraviolet rays to see if their skin reddens. In a statement, the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group that includes sunscreen makers, took exception to some of Consumer Reports' findings and the testing process.
The full report is published in the July issue of the magazine.
2015 Top Sunscreens
The report covers sunscreens from small and large makers, and they vary in price.
The only one that earned a full 100% score is La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk, SPF 60. At $7.20 an ounce, it's also the priciest.
Here are the other 14 on the recommended list. (Consumer Reports calls them ''non-yucky, non-sticky, no-burn options.'')
- Vichy Capital Soleil 50 Lightweight Foaming Lotion, SPF 50, at $5.94 an ounce
- Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50, at $1.31 an ounce
- Equate Ultra Protection, SPF 50, at $.56 an ounce
- No-Ad Sport SPF 50, at $.63 an ounce
- Ocean Potion Protect & Nourish, SPF 30, at $1 an ounce
- Aveeno Protect+Hydrate, SPF 30, at $3.33 an ounce
- Up & Up Ultra Sheer, SPF 30, at $1.63 an ounce
- Banana Boat SunComfort Continuous Spray, SPF 50+, at $1.83 an ounce
- L'Oreal Quick Dry Sheer Finish (spray) 50+, at $2.44 an ounce
- Coppertone Sport High Performance AccuSpray, SPF 30, at $1.58 an ounce
- Equate Sport Continuous Spray, SPF 30, at $1.33 an ounce
- Coppertone UltraGuard, SPF 70+, at $1.38 an ounce
- Neutrogena Beach Defense Water + Sun Protection, SPF 70, at $1.62 an ounce
- Caribbean Breeze Continuous Tropical Mist (spray), SPF 70, at $2.75 an ounce
More About the Report
This year's report is titled "5 Things You Must Know About Sunscreen." The five important facts are:
- Some products don't deliver on their SPF claims. Eleven didn't live up to the SPF on their label. But despite falling short, some still had an SPF higher than 30, the minimum recommended by many dermatologists.
- UVA protection varies. Sunscreens labeled ''broad spectrum" must protect against both UVA and UVB rays. (UVB causes skin reddening; UVA causes aging and wrinkling. Both types can lead to skin cancer.) UVB protection is measured by the SPF. But the UVA test is ''pass-fail,'' according to Calvo. So a "broad spectrum" protection label is providing a range of protection, she says. "We went a step further," she says, using a test modeled on one done in Europe. About eight of the screens probably would not have passed the stricter European test, according to the report.
- Natural sunscreens may not deliver. The magazine found they "don't really work all that well,'' Calvo says. There's no definition of natural. The researchers applied it to products that have the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as main ingredients. (Those are the ones that used to produce the white-nosed lifeguard look, although super-tiny nanoparticles in the newer formulas make that look less likely now.) Only two of the five natural products met their SPF claims. Perhaps the nanoparticles don't provide enough uniform coverage, the researchers say. If you prefer a natural product, Calvo says one you might consider is California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, as it met its SPF claim. (Adults can use baby sunscreen and vice-versa, she says.)
- Protection need not be pricey. While the product that got a perfect score costs $36 a bottle, there are many that typically cost less than a dollar an ounce, Calvo says.
- You don't have to tolerate stinky or sticky. Among the products the raters found least sticky was L'Oreal Quick Dry Sheer Finish 50+, at $2.44 an ounce.
A Word From The Sunscreen Industry
Farah K. Ahmed, chair of the Personal Care Product Council's sunscreen task force, says that all sunscreens are safe and effective. The FDA requires rigorous testing of sunscreen, she says. The test used by Consumer Reports is not the same as the FDA's, she says, and is ''not recognized by scientific experts."
She also took exception to the suggestion that natural products fall short on sun protection. The tests for SPF and broad spectrum are the same, she says.
Opinions From Dermatologists
The new report highlights the sometimes-overlooked importance of UVA rays, says Elizabeth Hale, MD, vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation and a Manhattan dermatologist. She reviewed the findings.
"These rays are present year-round, and consumers need to find sunscreens which are broad-spectrum and protect from both UVA rays and sunburn-causing UVB rays," she says. She serves as a consultant to Coppertone.
Some sprays that got poor marks may not have been applied thickly enough, says Carolyn Jacob, MD, a Chicago dermatologist.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you put on enough spray sunscreen that "an even sheen appears on the skin." When you use lotion sunscreen, the foundation recommends you use about 2 tablespoons, or the equivalent of a shot glass, to exposed areas -- about a nickel-sized portion for your face alone.
Using a product that lives up to its SPF and broad-spectrum claim is only part of good sun protection, Jacob says. It's important to reapply it, too. While some suggest every 2 hours, Jacob suggests you put on some more screen every 90 minutes and after swimming or sweating.
If finding a non-sticky, non-stinky, affordable sunscreen isn't enough to convince you to get on board with this healthy habit, a couple of ''sun numbers'' might.
According to the report, 90% of the skin damage most of us consider normal ''aging'' may actually be due to sun exposure.
Another sobering fact: 1 in 50 people will get melanoma, the deadliest of the skin cancers, some time in their life.
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