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What to know about sunscreen before buying it

Saving your skin means getting the facts straight

Published: May 2014
Is ultrahigh SPF really any better?
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When you shop for sunscreen, what do you look for? If you’re like half of the sunscreen wearers in a recent survey of 1,000 adults in the U.S. by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, SPF (sun protection factor) is the feature that influences your decision most. You can’t always rely on that claim, however.

We tested 20 sunscreens, and though we found several to recommend, only two provided the SPF protection promised on their packages after water immersion. One product came in at less than half of its claimed SPF, and we weren’t able to get a reading on another one marketed for use on children. The others came in 4 to 40 percent below their claims.

That doesn’t mean the sunscreens aren’t protective. Even an SPF 30 sunscreen that comes in, say, 40 percent below its claim gives you an SPF of 18. And we can’t say why our test results differ from the manufacturers’ claims, but they show that SPF isn’t always carved in stone.

In our tests, we found a wide variability of effectiveness against UVA rays (check our Ratings). The Food and Drug Administration says that a sunscreen must have a critical wavelength of at least 370 nanometers to be labeled broad spectrum. Two products came in slightly below that in our tests. Although we can’t say that the products we tested are incorrectly labeled, we’re submitting our critical-wavelength and SPF results to the FDA.

Our findings underscore the importance of choosing from our recommended sunscreens. If none are available, a product rated Good will provide adequate protection. Using any sunscreen is better than using none, but it’s just one part of a smart sun-protection strategy.

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