Where Products Fell Short
Many of the sunscreens came in at 4% to 40% below their SPF claims. But the report’s authors point out that they may still provide protection.
"Even an SPF 30 sunscreen that comes in, say, 40 percent below its claim gives you an SPF of 18," the authors write.
Sunscreen Industry Weighs In
Some of the report’s findings may mislead consumers, says Farah Ahmed, JD. She is the chairwoman of the sunscreen committee for the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group that includes sunscreen manufacturers.
The report notes that the FDA requires sunscreens makers to test their products and maintain certain standards. But unless there’s a problem, the FDA doesn't verify the tests, require a report of the results, or do its own testing.
Ahmed says the report seems to suggest that because the FDA does not directly test the sunscreens, they are not as effective as the label says.
"There is very rigorous testing required that the FDA has prescribed for sunscreens," she says. The agency can ask for test results and impose other oversight.
Chicago dermatologist Carolyn Jacob, MD, calls the list “a good start,” but says it isn't exclusive. "I think there are others not on that list that are good."
“I always recommend zinc oxide as an active ingredient,” she says. She thinks it provides better coverage.
Jacob tells patients to pick a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or greater.
"I like spray sunscreen due to the ease of putting them on," she says. With sprays, though, she finds that people ''tend not to put enough on. They really need to be spraying it on and rubbing it in."
Also, pay attention to expiration dates on sunscreens, she says. "The chemicals will lose effectiveness over time.''
Consumer Reports says it does not recommend spray sunscreens for children. Inhaling spray sunscreen can cause lung irritation and, when inhaled, titanium dioxide is a potential carcinogen, the report says.
"Anything that gets the public thinking about sun protection is good," says David J. Leffell, MD, the David Paige Smith professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale School of Medicine.
When his patients ask about sunscreen, "I say, 'You don't need anything more than an SPF of 30. So don't spend a lot of money on a higher SPF unless you want to.'"
"Sunscreens are safe, but they are part of a total sun protection program," Leffell says. He also tells people to stay in the shade when possible, wear protective clothing, wear hats and sunglasses, and use umbrellas.
Leffell reports doing scientific advisor work for Coppertone.