May 18, 2017 -- About a third of sunscreens tested by experts at Consumer Reports provide less than half the SPF protection claimed on the label, according to the magazine’s annual sunscreen report.
This year, Consumer Reports tested 58 lotions, sprays and sticks, says Trisha Calvo, deputy editor of health and food for the publication. It found 15 to recommend, while 20 of the 58 products offered less than half the SPF (sun protection factor) listed on the label. Experts recommend broad-spectrum products with an SPF of 30 or higher if you will be outdoors for awhile, although an SPF over 50 offers no additional benefit.
While the FDA requires sunscreen makers to have their products tested to evaluate the SPF, the agency does not routinely test products. Sunscreen makers only have to submit their results to the FDA if the agency requests it.
SPF is a measure of how well a sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which are the major cause of sunburn and contribute to cancer. Broad-spectrum sunscreens also protect against UVA rays, which contribute to skin aging and cancer.
The magazine’s experts followed FDA guidelines in addition to their own testing to see how well the products protected against UVA and UVB rays.
Here are the top three lotions among the 15 recommended sunscreens. All the recommended products scored 81 or higher overall and were rated excellent or very good for UVA and UVB protection:
- La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk SPF 60 ($36, or $7.20 an ounce, score of 100).
- Equate Sport Lotion SPF 50 ($5, or 63 cents an ounce, score of 99). Also a ''best buy."
- Pure Sun Defense Disney Frozen Lotion SPF 50 ($6, or 75 cents an ounce, score of 98). Also a ''best buy."
Here are the top spray and stick sunscreens:
- Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+ ($6, or $1 an ounce, score of 100). Also a ''best buy."
- Up & Up (Target) Kids Sunscreen Stick SPF 55 ($7, or $5.83 an ounce, score of 85).
Consumer Reports magazine will release the full report and rankings in its July issue.
Natural sunscreens -- those with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient -- did not perform as well in the Consumer Reports testing. More of these mineral sunscreens were evaluated this year than in the past, Calvo says.
People who prefer natural sunscreens should consider the one ranked highest, Calvo says. That is the California Kids #supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+. It scored 47 overall and costs $20 a package, or $6.90 an ounce.
Sprays are a problem because you may inhale them, Calvo says. That's not a good idea for anyone, she says, but especially not for kids.
Another issue with sprays: It's difficult to know how much you actually apply to your skin. Calvo suggests spraying it onto your hand, then rubbing it into your skin.
Perspectives on the Report
Beth Jonas, PhD, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, questioned how the magazine conducted its testing.
"It appears their testing methods are not consistent with those used by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration," Jonas said in a statement. The organization represents cosmetic and personal care product companies.
While she recognizes the goal of educating consumers on the important of sun safety, Jonas said they caution consumers that “the results of the Consumer Reports testing cannot be directly compared to a label claim."
Elizabeth Hale, MD, senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, says the report shows that it’s important ''not just to take for granted what is on the bottle."
She says that while many of her patients say they want to use a ''natural'' sunscreen, the rankings show that chemical sunscreens outperform them.
Hale reports consultant work for Coppertone.
Whatever product people use, the best sunscreen ''is the one you are going to use very day," says Adam Smartt, a spokesman for the Melanoma Research Foundation. "That can be different for everyone."
Experts also say to avoid two common mistakes: not applying enough and not reapplying often enough.
"You should use about an ounce," Calvo says. That's about a shot glass full. Reapply sunscreen every two hours.
She offers this guideline: "If you have an 8-ounce tube of sunscreen for four people, you should go through the whole bottle during a 4-hour beach stay."
The Skin Cancer Foundation also offers these sun protection tips:
- Seek shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Use clothing to cover up, including a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block UV rays. The higher the UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), the better.
- Wash UPF into your clothing with special laundry additives
- Bright and dark-colored clothes reflect more UV than lighter colors
You can read more about Consumer Reports' sunscreen study here.