Be Safe in the Sun: Top-Rated Sunscreens, and How to Use Them Properly
Last updated July 6, 2020
Even if you’re staying close to home this summer, you’ll likely spend some time in the sun. Be sure to protect your skin from UV rays that damage the skin and cause cancer.
Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the U.S., and melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. About 100,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with new cases of melanoma this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Nearly 7,000 will die from it.
The Skin Cancer Foundation says a good sunscreen, used properly, can dramatically lower your risk of skin cancer—reducing the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent.
Consumer Reports tested 53 products for this year’s sunscreen ratings and found that 36 provided less than half their labeled sun protection factor (SPF) number. SPF is supposed to tell you how well that product protects against sunburn.
“That doesn't mean the products aren't protective at all, but you might not be getting the degree of protection you think you are,” the report stated.
Two top performers in this year’s testing are also CR Best Buys:
- Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50+ (with a perfect score of 100 points)
- Coppertone Ultra Guard Lotion SPF 70 (94 out of 100)
Buying Tip: Trisha Calvo, CR’s deputy health editor, recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. If you choose a product that isn’t on the CR’s recommended list, Calvo advises you look for an SPF 40 with chemical ingredients, such as avobenzone or oxybenzone to ensure you’re getting adequate protection.
Mineral Sunscreens Don’t Work as Well
These days, many of us are trying to avoid chemicals by choosing products that use natural ingredients. Consumer Reports tests show that when it comes to sunscreen, chemical products perform better than natural products with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Recent research has raised questions about the chemicals in sunscreen. We now know that these chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, get into the bloodstream, and remain in the body for extended periods of time.
All of CR’s top-rated sunscreens contain a chemical ingredient called oxybenzone, a very effective UV filter, but one that has faced scrutiny in recent years. Studies suggest oxybenzone may interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in the body and that it causes damage to coral reefs. Beginning in 2021, Hawaii and Key West will ban sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone.
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers for additional safety data on the 12 active sunscreen ingredients currently in use, in order to “fully understand their absorption into the body as well as the long-term effects of absorption.” Without further testing, the FDA said, it does not know what levels of absorption can be considered safe.
The agency is quick to point out that it has not concluded that any of the chemical ingredients in sunscreens are unsafe. In fact, based on the recognized health benefits of using sunscreen, the FDA “strongly advises all Americans to continue to use sunscreens” in conjunction with other sun protective measures (such as protective clothing), while more research is done.
If you are concerned about chemical exposure, there are a couple of things you can do.
“Look for a sunscreen that doesn’t have oxybenzone, which is one of the chemicals in sunscreen that seems to be the most problematic,” CR’s Calvo told Checkbook. “And be very careful to cover up, that way you only have to put sunscreen on exposed skin which reduces the amount of sunscreen you're using and therefore the amount of chemicals.”
The highest-scoring oxybenzone-free sunscreens in CR's tests were:
- Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Weightless Lotion SPF 30 (69 out of 100)
- Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Ultra Radiance Lotion SPF 50 (50 out of 100)
While they weren’t at the top of the overall ratings, CR says they are still highly protective.
Sunscreen Is for Every Skin Color
When you’re in the sun, you need to wear sunscreen, no matter your skin color.
Thirty-nine percent of African Americans say they’ve ever used sunscreen, according to a new survey by Consumer Reports. That compares with 77 percent of Latinos and whites.
While people of color do get some natural UV protection from the extra melanin in their skin, they can still get sunburn and skin cancer.
“People with light skin are more likely to have their skin damaged by the UV rays and get skin cancer, but that doesn’t exclude darker-skinned people,” said Dr. Laura Makaroff, a skin cancer expert at the American Cancer Society. “Darker-skinned people, including people of any ethnicity, can also be affected and get skin cancer.”
Cancer experts say everyone should take steps to protect their skin. This includes using sunscreen, staying in the shade during peak sun, and wearing some protective clothing and sunglasses. Doing this will help reduce your chances of getting skin cancer and wrinkles.
Kids and Sunscreen
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to keep babies younger than six months out of direct sunlight. They should be in the shade, or under an umbrella or stroller canopy. Parents are also advised to dress babies in lightweight clothing that covers the arms and legs, and use brimmed hats that shade the neck to prevent sunburn.
When adequate clothing and shade are not available, the academy says, parents can apply “a minimal amount of sunscreen with at least 15 SPF on infants under six months to small areas, such as the infant's face and the back of the hands.” Remember it takes about 30 minutes for sunscreen to be absorbed by the skin and be most effective.
Do you need a special sunscreen made for kids? “Generally speaking, no,” Consumer Reports says. The FDA does not have separate regulations for sunscreen labelled for babies or children. All sunscreen products are required to meet the same criteria for safety and effectiveness. Even so, some sunscreens made for children may use ingredients that are gentler to their skin.
Consumer Reports recommends parents choose lotion sunscreens for kids, and use sprays only as a last resort. Spray lotions can cause lung irritation if inhaled. If you use a spray, squirt some onto your hand, and then apply it to your child’s skin.
Do It Right
To get the maximum protection, buy a good sunscreen and use it properly. Here’s what the American Academy of Dermatology recommends:
- Choose a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher, is water resistant, and provides broad-spectrum coverage, which means it protects you from both UVA and UVB rays.
- Apply sunscreen before going outdoors. It takes 15 to 30 minutes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and protect you. If you wait until you’re in the sun to apply sunscreen, your skin is unprotected and can burn.
- Apply enough sunscreen. Most adults need about one ounce—or enough to fill a shot glass—to fully cover their body. Rub the sunscreen thoroughly into your skin.
- Apply sunscreen to all skin not covered by clothing. Remember your neck, face, ears, legs, and tops of your feet. For your back and other hard-to-reach areas, ask someone to help you or use a spray sunscreen. If you have thinning hair, either apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a wide-brimmed hat. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15.
- To remain protected when outdoors, reapply sunscreen every two hours, or immediately after swimming or sweating. People who get sunburned usually didn't use enough sunscreen, didn't reapply it after being in the sun, or used an expired product. Remember: Your skin is exposed to the sun's harmful UV rays every time you go outside, even on cloudy days and in the winter.
More Info from Consumer Reports:
- Sunscreen Buying Guide
- Sunscreen for Dark Skin Is a Must
- Protect Yourself from Skin Cancer
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.