From the WebMD Archives

May 11, 2018 -- Despite concerns about chemical sunscreens, they protect you better from the sun than “natural” sunscreens, Consumer Reports’ latest sunscreen report finds.

No natural sunscreen -- products made with titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both as active ingredients -- made its list of 13 recommended products this year. The magazine tested 73 lotions, sprays, and sticks.

“In the past 6 years of sunscreen testing, we haven’t found a mineral product that offers both top-notch UVA and UVB protection and meets its labeled SPF,” reads the report, which is in the July issue. Rankings and other information are also on the Consumer Reports website.

SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of how long sunscreen protects you from radiation from the sun that can damage your skin. Dermatologists may recommend natural sunscreens for children and others with sensitive skin.

Other people have turned to natural options over concerns that chemical sunscreens may have health risks. A 2016 report from the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that nearly half of the 1,000 sunscreen users surveyed said they look for a natural product.

Mineral sunscreens may also be kinder to coral reefs, which get bleached, or killed, by certain sunscreen chemicals, especially oxybenzone. Oxybenzone has become such as concern that Hawaii has banned sunscreens that contain it starting in 2021.

But Consumer Reports found there is not enough research about chemical sunscreens in people to confirm any health concerns. It did make one recommendation for pregnant women: that they avoid sunscreens with retinol palmitate or retinyl palmitate as a precaution.

These ingredients are a type of retinoid, or a manmade form of vitamin A. In one large animal study, the inactive ingredient retinyl palmitate become carcinogenic when exposed to light, the report said. A different type of retinoid used for acne has been linked to birth defects.

Jennifer Lucas, MD, a dermatologist with the Cleveland Clinic, says her patients have not told her mineral sunscreens don’t seem to work as well.

“I haven’t had patients come back and report that they get burned more easily or that it doesn’t seem to work as well,” she says.

Sunscreen Rankings

Here are the top three lotions among the 13 recommended sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun's rays. Among the chemical sunscreens found in top rated products are avobenzone and oxybenzone.

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."
  • BullFrog Land Sport Quik Gel SPF 50 ($8.50, or $1.70 cents an ounce, score of 95).

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 ($8, or $6.67 an ounce, score of 85).

Among natural sunscreens, California Kids #Supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+ scored highest. It received an overall score of 55 and costs $20 a package, or $6.90 an ounce.

The report recommends against using sprays on kids until researchers know more about the dangers of inhaling the spray. If you do use them, Consumer Reports suggest spraying it onto your hand, then rubbing it into your skin.

Consumer Reports patterns its tests after the kind of testing the FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to do.

“A trained technician applies the right amount of sunscreen,” says Trisha Calvo, deputy editor for health and food at Consumer Reports. “It’s applied to six different areas in a person’s back.”

The tester then sits in water for as long as the sunscreen claims to be water resistant. Then their skin is exposed to UV light.  The testers then go home. When they come back to the lab the next day, a trained technician examines their skin for varying degrees of redness, and calculations are made to find out the SPF, Calvo says.

The online report says that about a third -- 24 of 73 -- tested at less than half of the SPF on their labels. Experts recommend broad-spectrum products with an SPF of 30 or higher if you will be outdoors for a while, but an SPF over 50 doesn't help more.

The Skin Cancer Foundation says sun protection is key to skin cancer prevention. About 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65% of melanomas are linked to exposure to UV radiation from the sun. 

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.

Using Sunscreen

Whatever type of sunscreen you use, the American Academy of Dermatology offers these tips:

  • Choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher, is water resistant, and provides broad-spectrum coverage from UVA and UVB rays.
  • Apply sunscreen generously 15 minutes before going outdoors.
  • Use enough -- most adults need at least one ounce of sunscreen, about the amount you can hold in your palm, to fully cover your body.
  • Remember your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet, and legs. If you have thinning hair, either put sunscreen on your scalp or wear a wide‐brimmed hat. Use a balm with an SPF of at least 15 for your lips.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, or immediately after swimming or sweating. People who get sunburned usually didn't use enough sunscreen, didn't reapply it after being in the sun, or used a sunscreen that was expired.

The Skin Cancer Foundation also recommends seeking shade and wearing protective clothing such as a wide-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

If you want to do right by the aquatic environment, Consumer Reports recommends wearing swim gear made from sun protective fabric, or even just throwing on a T-shirt over your swimsuit, which can cut the amount of sunscreen you need by about half.

“People need to have a healthy respect for sun safety, and that sunscreen is just one part of it,” says Lucas, the Cleveland Clinic dermatologist.

“I always tell people the sunscreen I like best is the one you’re willing to put on, as long as it says it has at least a 30 SPF, it’s water resistant, and it’s broad spectrum,” she says.

Show Sources

Consumer Reports: “Sunscreen Buying Guide,” “Shop Smarter for Sunscreen,” “Shining a Light on 'Natural' Sunscreen,” “What Does SPF Stand For?”

American Academy of Dermatology: “How to apply sunscreen.”

Skin Cancer Foundation: “Sunscreen Safety: The Reality.”

Jennifer Lucas, MD, dermatologist, Cleveland Clinic.

Trisha Calvo, deputy editor for health and food, Consumer Reports.

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