May 20, 2014 -- Only 2 of 20 sunscreens tested provide the promised level of SPF protection after being in water, according to Consumer Reports’ annual sunscreen test. Only seven of 20 products earned a recommendation.
"Consumers just need to be careful when they buy sunscreen, that they are looking at the labels and questioning the information they are reading,” says Trisha Calvo, Consumer Reports deputy editor.
Shoppers should remember that ''only three claims are regulated by the FDA -- SPF, broad spectrum, and water resistance,” Calvo says.
The report is published in the July issue of Consumer Reports.
2014 Top Sunscreens
"We tested popular sunscreens from top manufacturers as well as some from small manufacturers," Calvo says. All had to have an SPF claim of at least 30, be broad spectrum (protect against both UVA and UVB rays), and be water-resistant.
UVB rays can cause both sunburn and skin cancer. UVA rays are responsible for aging the skin, and they contribute to skin cancer, including the most deadly form known as melanoma. Experts measured the products' SPF (sun protection factor), or how well it guards against UVB rays, after the testers went in the water.
They also considered cost.
The seven sunscreens that earned recommendations are:
- Banana Boat's Ultra Defense Max Skin Protect SPF 110 spray, at $1.75 an ounce.
- BullFrog Water Armor Sport InstaCool SPF 50+ spray, at $1.67 an ounce. This was one of the two screens that lived up to its SPF claim.
- Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50, at $1.38 an ounce.
- Neutrogena Ultimate Sport SPF 70+ lotion, at $2.75 an ounce.
- Target's Up & Up Spray Sport SPF 50 spray, at $0.80 an ounce.
- Walgreens' Well Sport SPF 50 spray, at $1.58 an ounce
- Walmart's Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50, at $0.56 an ounce.
These 13 did not earn recommended ratings:
- Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sport SPF 45, at $2.75 an ounce.
- Banana Boat Kids SPF 50, at $1.25 an ounce.
- Banana Boat Sport Performance CoolZone SPF 30 spray, at $1.42 an ounce.
- Beyond Coastal Natural SPF 30, at $4 an ounce.
- California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30+, at $6.90 an ounce.
- Coppertone Sensitive Skin SPF 50, at $1.67 an ounce. This sunscreen lived up to its SPF claim, but only earned a “fair” rating for UVA protection.
- Coppertone Sport High Performance SPF 30 spray, at $1.67 an ounce.
- Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple SPF 50, at $1.31 an ounce.
- CVS Sheer Mist SPF 30 spray, at $1.80 an ounce.
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist SPF 30 spray, at $1.90 an ounce.
- No-Ad Sport SPF 50, at $0.63 an ounce.
- Target's Up & Up Kids SPF 50, at $0.64 an ounce.
- Walgreens' Well Baby SPF 50, at $0.80 an ounce.
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.