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Is Your Sunscreen Failing You?


There is a lot of confusion when it comes to sunscreen. Who should use it? How to use it? Is it good for you? Or not?

To many, it is like decoding the Rosetta Stone. Just this week, new research from Consumer Reports (CR) has raised eyebrows, adding more uncertainty to the SPF saga.

CR tested* 65 sunscreen formulations (lotions, sprays, and sticks) with SPF 30. Thirty, of course, being the magic number because it is the minimum level of protection recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. They found that 43 percent of the products delivered less protection than claimed on the label. In three instances, the difference was quite dramatic—we're talking less than SPF 15 when the brand touted a protection level of 50. Surprisingly, mineral sunscreens, with active ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, fared worse than chemical sunscreens that contain avobenzone and the like. To make things even more confusing, according to the CR, this is a pattern, not a fluke. They have reproduced these results over the past four years.

That's the bad news. But which brands are the Consumer Reports sunscreen MVPs? These are the brands that came out on top:

  1. La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk lotion
  2. Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 lotion
  3. Banana Boat SunComfort Continuous Spray SPF 50+
  4. Aveeno Protect + Hydrate SPF 30
  5. No-Ad Sport SPF 50 lotion
  6. Equate Sport Continuous Spray SPF 50

So what about the others that didn't test as well as these ones? How does that happen? Well, the truth is that the FDA does not routinely test sunscreens. There is a requirement that companies test their products. But they do not need to inform the FDA of the results unless asked. I am not privy to the tests or results that any of these companies have performed, so I cannot comment on their reliability. But certainly, based on what we already know and the trend uncovered by this newest data, it is clear that not all SPFs are created equal.

We're going into the sunniest time of year, and we have established that #itscomplicated, so what now? To make sure you're getting adequate protection against skin cancer, and wrinkles too, try to follow these basic rules, when it comes to sunscreen:

1. Wear it 365, regardless of skin color or weather conditions. Remember, ultraviolet light can come through the windows of your car or home, though clouds, rain, snow, clothing, and shade.

2. With intense sun exposure, put it on 15 minutes before you go outside. And make sure to apply before putting on your clothes. Clothing, unless specifically designated as such, is not a source of protection against cancerous sun rays. In fact, unless you're wearing denim or a garment made of a thick, tight weave, you can almost count on some light coming through.

3. Reapply it every two hours, and after excessive sweating/swimming. If the amount you are using to cover your whole body can fill a shot glass, then you are probably using enough.

4. Choose a formulation that works for you. There are SPF powders, lotions, creams, sticks, sprays.... Use the one that works best for your lifestyle, budget, and skin.

5. According to CR, you are most likely get an SPF 30 level of protection if you chose a chemical sunscreen with an SPF of at least 40. For those who prefer to steer clear of ingredients such as avobenzone and oxybenzone, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing an SPF 30 or higher product labeled "broad spectrum," with some element of water resistance (this means it may offer protection while you are in the water, but you need to reapply it after, or during if you are in longer than 40 to 80 minutes). The terms "waterproof" and "sweatproof" have been banned by the FDA. If you see a product with this designation, regard it with extreme caution. The two nonchemical sunscreens favored by CR were Cotz Plus SPF 58 and California Baby Super Sensitive 30+, as both delivered broad-spectrum protection of at least 30.

Most important: "Don't rely just on sunscreen", says Rebecca Tung, M.D., a skin cancer surgeon in Chicago. She recommends using rash guards, sunglasses, and a hat for added protection. When asked what her sunscreen preference is, it is clear that Tung has her routine down. "Personally, I use nonchemical sunscreens on my face because I have super-sensitive skin. I choose products that contain an SPF of 50 to 60 and apply in front of a mirror so I make sure to get enough on. If I am outside on the beach, I will reapply every hour and a half."

So there you have it folks! As summer approaches, remember to keep calm and sunscreen on.

(* Testing was performed by having people apply sunscreen on their back and sit in water for 40 to 80 minutes, then exposing them to ultraviolet light and assessing for redness.)


Mona Gohara, MD

Oberlin-bred feminist, Yale-trained dermatologist, mother, Virgo, and lover of all things Broadway, tulle, and 80's. Favorite TV show: the Mindy Project because beauty and brains are a wonderful thing. 

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