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Many sunscreens fall short on SPF protection and ingredient safety, reports say

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Consumer Reports found that 28 of products tested — 43 percent — failed to meet the SPF claim on their labels. Three of the products actually had an SPF of less than 15.

Two new reports on sunscreens have useful, although somewhat conflicting, information for people who want to get the best sun protection this summer.

That means all of us, of course. Skin cancer is the most common cause of cancer in the United States, and more than 90 percent of skin cancers are due to skin cell damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Rates of melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — have more than doubled over the past three decades. Each year, more than 65,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma, and more than 9,000 people die from the disease.

We need to be protecting ourselves — and our families — from the sun by covering our skin with clothes, by seeking out shade, especially in the middle of the day, and by applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

But, as the editors of Consumer Reports point out in a report released last week, sunscreens may not be protecting us as well as we think. They tested more than 60 lotions, sprays and sticks with sun protection factors — SPFs — of 30 or higher, the minimum level recommended by the American Academy of Dermatologists.

They found that 28 of those products — 43 percent — failed to meet the SPF claim on their labels. Three of the products actually had an SPF of less than 15.

“That’s not enough sun protection, and it could leave you vulnerable to sunburn and possible long-term skin damage, such as wrinkles or skin cancer,” write the editors.

The results of this year’s tests are not unusual.

“We’ve observed this pattern in our testing over the past four years,” the editors note. “Of all the sunscreens we’ve tested over that stretch of time, fully half came in below the SPF number printed on the label, and a third registered below an SPF 30.”

No routine testing

How can sunscreen manufacturers get away with that?

“The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t routinely test sunscreens; it requires the manufacturers to test their products,” the Consumer Reports editors explain. “But in most cases the companies don’t have to submit their results, just keep them on hand in case the FDA asks to see them. What’s more, companies only have to test a sunscreen on people when a product rolls out or is reformulated.”

Consumer Reports’ findings regarding specific sunscreens is behind a paywall, but WebMD has posted a list of the 17 products that made the organization’s recommended list:

  • LaRoche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk lotion, at $7.20 per ounce
  • Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50-plus, at $1 per ounce
  • 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

All those products are chemical-based. Consumer Reports says its findings regarding mineral products, often called “natural” sunscreens, were troubling. Such products, whose active ingredients are titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both, tended to perform far worse than chemical-based sunscreens in terms of protecting against the sun’s rays.

A few did relatively well in the tests, however, including Cotz Plus SPF 58 and California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+.

Concern about chemicals

A second report on sunscreens, released this week by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), offers a different view of mineral sunscreens.

“They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives,” the report says.

EWG’s primary concern is those chemical additives. The organization particularly warns against products that contain oxybenzene, which it says is a hormone disruptor that acts like estrogen in the body, and retinyl palmitate, which “on sun-exposed skin … may speed development of skin tumors and lesions.”

EWG is also concerned about the proliferation of sunscreen sprays, which they say may pose serious inhalation risks. (The FDA has expressed a similar concern.)

The EWG has given more than 200 beach and sports sunscreens, including ones for children, a “green rating.” You’ll find detailed information about these products — and hundreds of others that EWG gives lower ratings to — on the organization’s website.

Make sure you and your family are protected

Shopping for a safe and effective sunscreen may be complicated, but there’s one thing that all the experts agree on: The sunscreen needs to be applied correctly. The American Academy of Dermatology’s offers these tips on how to do that:

Apply sunscreen generously before going outdoors. It takes approximately 15 minutes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and protect you. If you wait until you are in the sun to apply sunscreen, your skin is unprotected and can burn.

Use enough sunscreen. Most adults need at least one ounce of sunscreen, about the amount you can hold in your palm, to fully cover all exposed areas of your body. Rub the sunscreen thoroughly into your skin. 

Apply sunscreen to all bare skin. Remember your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet and legs. For hard‐to‐reach areas like your back, ask someone to help you or use a spray sunscreen. If you have thinning hair, either apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a wide‐brimmed hat. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm with a SPF of at least 15.

Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours to remain protected, or immediately after swimming or excessively sweating. People who get sunburned usually didn’t use enough sunscreen, didn’t reapply it after being in the sun, or used an expired product. Your skin is exposed to the sun’s harmful UV rays every time you go outside, even on cloudy days and in the winter. So whether you are on vacation or taking a brisk fall walk in your neighborhood, remember to use sunscreen. 

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/25/2016 - 11:03 am.

    Why now?

    Our species lived outside for, literally, millenia. Why do we need sunscreen now? Perhaps we aren’t spending enough time outside, allowing our bodies’ natural defenses to do their jobs & instead exacerbate the problem by hiding from the sun.

    • Submitted by Susan Lesch on 05/25/2016 - 11:52 am.


      Could it be life expectancy? Wikipedia says humans were only good for 30 years until after 1900.


      • Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/26/2016 - 01:31 pm.

        Could be

        Life expectancy certainly could be a factor. As is the fact that so many of us do work indoors & have limited time to build natural defenses (ie a tan). But I get irritated with the prescription to avoid all exposure to the sun on the basis that too much is bad for our skin. It’s excessively cautious, in my view. Plus, vitamin D is good for us. Go get some. Yes, avoid sunburn. Sunscreen is good for that, particularly in the early season when our pasty selves emerge from winter. But there’s no reason to hide.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/25/2016 - 11:52 am.

    Don’t Mace Me, Bro!

    It looks like the person in the photo is getting maced. Happy times for all!

  3. Submitted by Tom van der Linden on 05/26/2016 - 09:02 am.

    Merge two

    Could somebody merge the two lists: Consumer Reports effectiveness, and EWG’s safe list?
    Otherwise, we are forced to buy Consumer Reports, which I guess was CR’s point all along.

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