It’s almost summer and you will need the protection from sun screen. Check out consumer reports buying guide.

It’s almost summer and you will need the protection from sun screen. Check out consumer reports buying guide.

It is getting warmer, and no doubt you are likely thinking about shorts, beach and leisure. In our practice, we see many athletes who will be running, biking and doing other activities in the hot sun. Part of that ritual also includes sunscreen. Which should you buy? Many older folks have dealt with skin cancers as they aged due to the free and easy days in the 60’s and 70’s when reflectors and oils were in. We now know better, and sunscreen with a higher protection rating can help keep your skin healthy, as you derive the benefits from the outdoors such as better fitness and vitamin D, produced by your body with the help of the sun.

Consumer reports just published its annual guide to sunscreens. Check it out here.

Sunscreen buying guide

Last updated: May 2013

Getting started

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.

read more