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Sunscreen buying guide

Last updated: May 2013

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Our tests of 12 sunscreens showed that you can't always rely on the SPF number, a measure of protection from burning ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. In fact, two of the tested sunscreens were poor against UVB rays, which causes sunburn and contributes to skin cancer, and one of them was just fair for ultraviolet A (UVA) protection, which tans and ages skin, and also contribute to skin cancer. But six of the sunscreens did well enough to be recommended and will help protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Paying more may not buy more protection. The least effective sunscreens were among the priciest.

How we tested

Alas, there are no trips to Tahiti for our sunscreen panelists--they go to a lab. In UVB tests, five spots on one rectangular sunscreened area of the panelists' backs are exposed for set times to rays from a sun simulator. After panelists have soaked in a tub of water, five spots in a second sunscreened area of their back are exposed in the same way. About a day later, the 10 spots are examined for redness. The resulting UVB Ratings reflect each product's actual effectiveness, not how close it came to meeting its SPF claim. To test for UVA protection, we also use people but check for tanning instead of redness. To test for staining, we apply each sunscreen to cloth swatches, let those dry, put them through two wash cycles, and air-dry them, then check for stains. Overall scores are based primarily on results of the above UVB and UVA tests.

In addition, we use a test based on the Food and Drug Administration's "critical wavelength" test, required for sunscreens that claim broad-spectrum protection. It assesses how well UV rays are absorbed by clear plastic plates treated with sunscreen. All products passed this test. Finally, we have our trained sensory panel evaluate the scent and skin feel of the products.

What we found

Our tests this year found a bigger gap between many products' claimed SPF values and their measured SPF values than we've found in the past. (In fact, a top-rated sunscreen from 2012 was the lowest-rated this year.) It's hard to explain the changes but our tests did find that there are better choices. New labeling and test requirements from the Food and Drug Administration could have led sunscreen makers to tweak ingredients, but several manufacturers told us they hadn't changed formulations since our last tests. In any case, changes are difficult to pinpoint because formulas are proprietary.

What's in sunscreens

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and the benefits of sunscreens outweigh potential risks from their ingredients. That said, animal studies have raised some concerns about what's inside these sunscreens.

Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in animals. Our tests found that all four of the sunscreens with these mineral-based active ingredients contain nanoparticles.

Retinoids, part of the vitamin A family and an inactive ingredient in some sunscreens, have caused an increase in skin cancers in mice. There's also a risk of birth defects in people taking oral acne medications containing retinoids, though they differ from the retinoids in sunscreens. As a precaution, pregnant women may want to choose a sunscreen without the ingredient retinol or retinyl palmitate.

Animal studies have indicated that oxybenzone, which is in many sunscreens, may interfere with hormones in the body.

Sun protection

To stay safe in the sun, wear a hat and protective clothing. When using any sunscreen:

  • Spray carefully. The FDA has said it is exploring the risks of inhaling spray sunscreens. Until we know more, our experts say to avoid using sprays on children, and do not spray them directly on your face. Instead, spray sunscreen onto your hands then apply it to your face. Sprays are flammable, so let them dry before going near an open flame.
  • Use enough. Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. For lotions, use 2 to 3 tablespoons. For sprays, apply as much as can be rubbed in, then repeat. Regardless of which kind you use, reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.

Bottom line

Based on our findings, it's especially important to check our Ratings for a sunscreen that did well. If you can't find a recommended sunscreen, buy one that claims broad-spectrum protection and has a claimed SPF of at least 40. We used to recommend 30, but given the performance of this latest batch, a claim of 40 makes more sense.


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