Your Sunscreen Might Not Be Protecting You As Well As You Think

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Many of us (myself included) slather on sunscreen daily, despite the season and/or the weather. And, if you don't, you definitely should. But, according to a new study, all that skin-care due diligence might not be as effective as we had hoped. Sigh.

Over the past year, Consumer Reports researchers diligently tested out over 60 lotions, sprays, and sticks with claimed ratings of SPF 30 or higher. The findings uncovered that 28 (that's 43%) of the products tested allegedly had less SPF protection than their labels promised — and some even came in at an SPF rating of less than 15. Yes, we know, such great news to hear a month before summer.

These findings are in addition to the sunscreen testing Consumer Reports has been doing over the past four years, which didn't fare much better. The worst offenders of the bunch were products claiming to be water-resistant (CR says they weren't), as well as mineral or "natural" sunscreens that contained chemical blocks as active ingredients. As the study points out, companies are required to test their products, but the catch is they're not required to submit those results unless the FDA requests them.

CR is calling for stricter guidelines from the FDA, and cosmetic chemist Ni'Kita Wilson agrees that the testing methods should absolutely be more standardized. But, she also points out that there's more to these findings than meets the eye. Mainly, sunscreen companies don't all test their products in the exact same manner, which could have led to these shocking results.

"What [CR] fails to understand is that [these companies] may not have been testing the products under the same conditions," Wilson says. "In order to test for the SPF, the product is applied on the back, then slowly hit with UV light until the skin shows signs of redness. [Simply put], the longer it takes to turn red, the higher the SPF." She goes on to explain that if a brand were to irradiate the skin with very low energy, then it will obviously take longer to redden than if the testers used a higher energy. "Therein lies the problem: The FDA doesn't specify a specific energy level, so it can vary from testing lab to testing lab based on their standard practices," says Wilson.

The FDA doesn't specify a specific energy level, so it can vary from testing lab to testing lab based on the standard practice.

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But it's not all bad. Some sunscreens passed the CR test with flying colors — and they happen to be ones our editors know and love. La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Body Milk Sunscreen got a perfect score (for the second year in a row) and Avon Sun+ Sunscreen Face Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 40, Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, and Neutrogena Beach Defense Sunscreen Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF 70 were also recommended.

CR plans on submitting these findings to the FDA, so hopefully a more regimented policy will be put into place. But it's a good reminder that we all need to be extra diligent when it comes to sun protection — and incorporate other physical blocks, like protective clothing and hats.

"The key is proper use," adds Joshua Ziechner, MD, a dermatologist and assistant professor in dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York. "My advice is to choose the highest SPF product possible. The higher number acts as a safety net, as the protection is diluted out if you don't apply as much or reapply as you should." Be sure to reapply at least every two hours, especially if you're outside for long periods of time. And if you can find shade, do.
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