Is European sunscreen really better?

Here's how the sun-protection products in the U.S. stack up

Published: May 16, 2015 10:30 AM
Photo: Photographer / Videographer: Slobodan Vasic

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Considering that more than 17 percent of the sunscreens we tested got an overall score of 90 or higher, it’s fair to say that Americans have access to some very good options. That’s impressive because the U.S. has just 17 approved active ingredients, compared with 29 in Australia, 27 in Europe, and 20 in Canada.

And only a handful are widely used, notes David Steinberg, president of Steinberg & Associates, a personal-care-products consulting company in Plainsboro, N.J. The others either don’t work well or have properties that make them largely unusable. For instance, dioxybenzone makes the skin give off a blue glow as it absorbs UV rays. Menthyl anthranilate smells like bubble gum or grape juice, so it’s usually found only in kids’ products.

If manufacturers have fewer UV filters to work with, what accounts for the high performance of U.S. sunscreens? “Everyone talks about active ingredients, but inactive ingredients are perhaps as important—if the vehicle doesn’t create a uniform film over the skin, you won’t get adequate protection,” says Steven Q. Wang, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, N.J., and an industry consultant. “Over the years, manufacturers have figured out ways to improve the formulations, so they’re more elegant. That means people are more likely to use them—and use them correctly.”

Get the latest sun protection advice from Consumer Reports and read our new report, "5 Things You Must Know About Sunscreen."

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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