Sunscreens Not Created Equal: Consumer Reports

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Updated: 6/03 6:26 pm

May 24, 2013 -- In its new sunscreen ratings evaluation, Consumer Reports found that paying more for sunscreen doesn't always mean better protection.

"Some of our best products were also the least expensive," says Nicole Sarrubbo, associate editor for Consumer Reports.

Up & Up Sport SPF 50, from Target, got top honors in these latest ratings, and is one of the least expensive products tested.

Some of the pricier sunscreens, in fact, did not live up to the SPF (sun protection factor) value on the label, the testers found. Two sunscreens -- All Terrain AquaSport SPF 30 and Badger Unscented SPF 34 -- were rated poor in protecting against UVB rays.

Top Sunscreens This Year

Consumer Reports regularly rates sunscreens, and this time picked 12 popular products from a variety of stores. They took into account protection from UVA and UVB, how much the product stained clothing, and the cost per ounce.

Six got recommended ratings:

  • Target's Up & Up Sport, at the top spot, costs $1.16 an ounce.
  • Walmart's Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50, is just 47 cents an ounce. It won the CR Best Buy award of the dozen.
  • Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50, at $1.38 an ounce.
  • Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport SPF 50, at $1.33 an ounce. 
  • Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch SPF 30, at $1.38 an ounce.
  • Coppertone Sport High Performance SPF 30, at $1.67 an ounce.

The six that didn't get recommended ratings include:

  • California Baby SPF 30+, at $6.90 an ounce (discontinued, but may still be available).
  • No-Ad with Avobenzone, Aloe, and Vitamin E SPF 45, at 63 cents an ounce.
  • Neutrogena Wet Skin SPF 45+, at $3.67 an ounce.
  • Kiss My Face with Hydresia SPF 40, at $5.33 an ounce.
  • Badger Unscented SPF 34, at $5.52 an ounce (discontinued, but may still be available).
  • All Terrain AquaSport SPF 30, at $4.33 an ounce.

 

More Sunscreen Results

Sunscreens were tested in lab tests and on people in the lab, using a sun simulator. Testers were observed for sunburn to gauge UVB effectiveness and were observed for tanning to evaluate UVA protection.

UVA rays pierce the skin more deeply than UVB. But both types are linked with skin cancer.  More than 3.5 million cases of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are diagnosed a year in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. This year, more than 76,000 people will learn they have the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma. 

In the rating, four products were found to have nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which help sunscreen disappear (California Baby SPF 30+, Kiss My Face with Hydresia SPF 40, Badger Unscented SPF 34, All Terrain AquaSport SPF 30). Some studies question the particles' safety. But the researchers say the benefits of sunscreens ''outweigh potential risks from their ingredients."

Most sunscreens left stains that didn't wash out of the cotton, polyester, or rayon/spandex swatches used in the tests.

Experts from the Personal Care Products Council, which includes sunscreen manufacturers, were not immediately available to comment on the study and its findings.

Other Findings, Recommendations

Because of the varied levels of protection, Consumer Reports boosted their SPF recommendation, previously set at 30. "As a result of seeing some variation in the SPF, we decided to recommend SPF 40 if you can't find one of our recommended products," Sarrubbo says.

Other ways to boost protection, according to Consumer Reports:

  • Apply the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Use 2 or 3 tablespoons to cover your body.
  • Make sure you reapply every 2 hours
  • If you use a sunscreen spray, spray yourself twice to get the spots you missed.
  • Wear protective clothing, including a hat and sunglasses, if possible.
  • Avoid storing sunscreen in a hot car, as it may become less effective more quickly.

"We don't recommend spray for kids right now," Sarrubbo says, "until the FDA releases the results of an ongoing study about the effect of inhaling sprays."

Dermatologist's Opinion

It's no surprise that some of the less expensive sunscreens came out on top, says H. Ray Jalian, MD, a dermatologist at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. He reviewed the findings and has no affiliation with sunscreen makers.

The basic ingredients in sunscreens are often similar, he says. "What you are paying for [in more expensive sunscreens] are cosmetic things -- the way it feels on your skin."

He tells patients to apply ''a shot glass full'' of sunscreen before going outdoors. When they ask about the best sunscreen to use, he tells them: ''the one you are going to wear on a daily basis."

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