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.”
- 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
“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.