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Release Date: 05/24/2011

Consumer Reports Health: Tests Reveal Top Performing Sunscreens

Plus, other options for protecting your skin when the mercury rises

CR July '11 CoverYONKERS, NY — In tests of 22 sprays, creams and lotions, Consumer Reports Health identifies nine products that provide excellent protection against the UVB rays that cause sunburn and very good protection against UVA rays, even after immersion in water.   

Consumer Reports Health identifies three “CR Best Buys:” Up & Up Sport SPF 30 (Target), No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45, and Equate Baby SPF 50.  The Up & Up is a spray while the other two products are lotions.   On UVB protection, all three products provide “Excellent” protection, while providing “Very Good” protection against UVA radiation, which penetrates deeper than UVB, and can cause tanning and aging the skin.   But consumers shouldn’t rely on sunscreen alone, notes the report.  “Sunscreens can be very effective but you should combine them with other good options for protecting your skin such as broad-brimmed hats, tightly woven clothing, and umbrellas.  You can be creative—consider bringing a small tent to the beach for your kids to crawl into,” said Jamie Hirsh, senior associate editor, Consumer Reports Health.  

Almost every sunscreen tested by Consumer Reports Health contains some ingredients associated with adverse health effects in animal studies. Oxybenzone and other endocrine disruptors may interfere with hormones in the body, and nanoscale zinc oxide and titanium oxide are linked to problems such as potential reproductive and developmental effects.  Retinyl palmitate (listed among inactive ingredients), a type of topical vitamin A, is an antioxidant that animal studies have linked to increased risk of skin cancers.  In skin, it converts readily to retinoids, which have been associated with a risk of birth defects in people using acne medications that contain them.  As a precaution, pregnant women may want to avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate.  Some examples of top performing sunscreens that do not contain retinyl palmitate include Up & Up Sport SPF 30 and Equate Baby SPF 50.   More research is needed, but as of now, the proven benefits of sunscreen outweigh any potential risks.

Consumer Reports Health also details the smell and feel of each of the 22 sunscreens.  Many sunscreens have a floral and/or citrus scent.  Some feel draggy, meaning that the skin "pulled" when a panelist rubbed a hand across an arm.  Some even made testers want to wash them off after applying them.  “Sunscreen needs to be applied generously to protect exposed areas of your body, so you want to know how it’s going to feel and what it will smell like.   If you want to smell like coconut, that’s your prerogative, or you can go for the classic citrus scent, available in many top performing brands,” said Hirsh.   The report also notes that all of the more effective sunscreens tended to stain cloth.

Consumer Reports Health offers these tips for using sunscreens:

  • Don’t rely on sunscreen alone.  Wear protective clothing and limit time in the sun.
  • Choose a sunscreen that is water resistant with an SPF of at least 30. Above 30, there’s not much more protection.
  • Reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.
  • Use 2 to 3 tablespoons of a lotion on most of your body, or “spray as much as can be evenly rubbed in and then go back over every area and spray completely once again,” advises Jessica Krant, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.
  • Don’t pay too much.  La Roche-Posay costs $18.82 per ounce and scored lower overall than No-Ad at 59 cents an ounce.
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