By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD
May 17, 2016 -- More than 40% of sunscreens tested by Consumer Reports experts don't live up to their SPF claims, according to the organization's annual report on the products.
Twenty-eight of the sunscreens did not deliver the promised SPF level, says Trisha Calvo, CR's deputy editor of health and food. And two products claiming an SPF of 50 actually weighed in with an SPF of 8, according to test results.
This year's report includes ratings of lotions, sprays, sticks, and facial sunscreens, and reviews both adult and children's formulas. It also includes commonly asked questions about sunscreens, such as what SPF (sun protection factor) and ''broad spectrum'' are. It will be published in the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Seventeen sunscreens earned a spot on the organization's "recommended" list.
"I think there are a lot of really good sunscreens on the market," Calvo says.
The testing uses volunteers who soak in water after the sunscreens are applied, and then have their skin exposed to UV light. The Personal Care Products Council, a group that includes sunscreen makers, questioned the process and say that their products meet FDA requirements and their own testing.
2016 Sunscreen Winners & Losers
Two products earned a perfect score: La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk lotion, with an SPF of 60, and Trader Joe's Spray with an SPF of 50-plus. It's priced at $7.20 an ounce. The Trader Joe's spray is $6 for 6 ounces.
The other 15 making the recommended list are:
- Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 Disney Frozen, at $.79 per ounce
- Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50, at $1.31 an ounce
- Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50, at $.49 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
- Banana Boat Sun Comfort Continuous Spray SPF 50+, at $1.67 an ounce
- Neutrogena Beach Defense Water + Sun Protection SPF 70, at $1.62 an ounce
- Caribbean Breeze Continuous Tropical Mist SPF 70, at $2.77 an ounce
- Equate Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30, at $.83 an ounce
- DG Body Sport SPF 30 (spray), at $.88 an ounce
- Coppertone Kids Stick SPF 55, at $9.17 an ounce
- Up & Up Kids Stick SPF 55, at $5.83 an ounce
- Avon Sun + Sunscreen Face Lotion SPF 40, at $3 an ounce
- Up & Up Ultra Sheer SPF 30 (facial sunscreen), at $1.73 an ounce
The sunscreens tested included both mineral and chemical types. Mineral sunscreens, with ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc, were less likely to meet their SPF claims than chemical sunscreens, with ingredients such as avobenzone, Calvo says. Looking back over 4 years, the researchers found that 26% of mineral sunscreens tested met their SPF claim, compared to 58% of the chemical ones.
While the FDA requires sunscreen makers to test their products, in most cases it doesn't require them to submit their results to the agency.
Sunscreen Industry Weighs In
Claims that products don't meet the promised SPF level may be due to common testing errors, Beth Lange, PhD, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, says in a statement.
Two products that fell far short of their claimed SPF include Banana Boat Kids Tear-Free, Sting-Free Lotion SPF 50 and CVS Kids Sun Lotion SPF 50. Both tested at an SPF of 8.
CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis says the company and an independent third party re-tested the product, using industry standards and FDA methods. "There is absolutely no indication that our product has an SPF lower than 50," he says.
Edgewell Personal Care, maker of Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic products, says in a statement that ''all of our sun care products undergo rigorous testing for SPF, broad spectrum and water resistance during product development; are appropriately labeled for SPF; and meet our own specifications as well as relevant FDA regulations."
The disparity between claimed SPF protection and tested SPF is a ''cause for real concern," says Tim Turnham, PhD, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation.
The report ''raises very important points about the importance of SPF as well as the importance of broad-spectrum UVA protection as a means to reduce the risk of skin cancer and to minimize premature skin aging," says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, senior vice-president of the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Buying sunscreens with SPFs higher than 30 may be a good idea, Hale says, to compensate both for products that fall short of their claims and for the tendency to under-apply sunscreens.
''The best sunscreen is the one you will use," Turnham says. If you choose a spray, ''you have to be sure you have good coverage. You should avoid inhaling it. And be careful with kids and sprays. If you are concerned, spray it on your hand and rub it in.''
The FDA has warned against using sunscreen spray on children until they do more testing.
Also make sure to put on enough sunscreen -- about a shot-glass full for your entire body if you're in a bathing suit. Reapply every 2 hours or sooner if you're sweating or swimming, the American Academy of Dermatology says.
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