Sunscreen buying guide

Last updated: June 2015

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Our tests of 34 body and six face sunscreens showed that you can't always rely on the sun protection factor (SPF) number, a measure of protection from ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which causes sunburn and contributes to skin cancer. We also tested for protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which tan and age skin, and also contribute to skin cancer. We found 15 sunscreens that did well enough against both UVA and UVB to recommend.

How we tested

Alas, there are no trips to Tahiti for our sunscreen panelists--they go to a lab. To check for UVB protection, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to six places on our panelists' backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, each of those areas is exposed to six intensities of UVB light from a sun simulator for a set time. About a day later, the six spots are examined for redness. Tested SPF --based on the average results for each sunscreen after water immersion, not how close a sunscreen comes to meeting its SPF claim--is used to calculate our UVB scores.The UVA test we use allows us to differentiate the degree of UVA protection among sunscreens. To test for UVA, we smear sunscreen onto a plastic plate and pass UV light through and measure the amount of UVA and UVB rays that are absorbed. That information is then used to calculate our UVA score.

Overall scores are based on results of the above UVB and UVA tests.

Finally, we have our trained sensory panel evaluate the scent and skin feel of the products.

What we found

Almost a third of the products tested fell short of the SPF claim on their labels. We found differences between the claimed SPF and the actual SPF in our tests last year as well. Eleven products did not deliver their promised protection and missed the mark by anywhere from 16 to 70 percent. That doesn't mean the sunscreens aren't protective, but you may not be getting the protection you think you are.

While the majority of the sunscreens received excellent or very good UVA scores, four received good scores and three received fair or poor scores.

In our tests over the years, so-called "natural" or mineral sunscreens--those that contain only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or both as active ingredients-- have tended to perform less well than those that have chemical active ingredients, such as avobenzone. None of the five mineral sunscreens in our tests this year did well enough to make our list of recommendations.

The sensory aspects of sunscreen are important to many people. You're less likely to use one if you don't like its scent or feel. Our sensory testing found many that did not feel heavy or sticky on skin, and in many cases these were also high-performing products. Sunscreens come in a vareity of fragrances. In addition to the classic beachy scent, the ones in our tests had tropical, floral, baby powder, citrus, and woodsy/outdoorsy notes. We also found that no fragrance doesn't always mean no odor. Many fragrance-free sunscreens had a slight amount of plastic smell (think beach ball).

What's in sunscreen

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.

Products that contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may contain nanoparticles, especially if they go on clear or nealy so. These compounds have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in animals.

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 palmitate or retinyl palmitate.

Sun protection

Research shows that people who rely on sunscreens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves. Try to avoid the sun or stay in the shade when the sun is the strongest (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and dress right for the occasion. Wear a hat and clothing that's made from tightly woven fabric. (Dark colors are better at blocking UV rays.) Hold clothing up to the light; if you can see through it, the UV rays can get through, too.

When using sunscreen:

  • Use enough. Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. For lotions, a good rule of thumb is a teaspoon per body part or area: 1 teaspoon for your face, head, and neck; 1 for each arm; 1 for each leg; 1 for your chest and abdomen; and 1 for your back and the back of your neck. 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.
  • Use spray sunscreens 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.

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, 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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