Summer Safety: Sunscreens Are Misleading, Here's How to Choose the Right One


If you're wondering whether it's worth the trouble and expense to use sunscreen, consider this: Only one blistering sunburn you get as a child or adolescent doubles your risk for skin cancer when you're older, and the risk goes up from there.  The most dangerous type of skin cancer is melanoma.  An estimated 10-thousand people will die from melanoma this year, which breaks-down to an average of one death every hour.  Melanoma rates have tripled over the last 35 years.

Sunburn occurs when your skin turns red.  A sunscreen's SPF (Sun Protection Factor) indicates how many times longer it takes your skin to burn than if you were not wearing sunscreen. For example,  SPF 30 means it takes 30 times longer for your skin to burn if you're wearing that sunscreen than not wearing sunscreen at all.  However, sunscreen doesn't protect as well as we think.  

The main problem is human error.  Sunscreen should be applied

  1. Every Two Hours
  2. To Dry Skin
  3. Generously

Manufacturer error also plays a part.  In its annual report ranking sunscreens, Consumer Reports discovered the number on the bottle isn't always accurate: Of the 58 sunscreens rated by Consumer Reports this year, 20 of them tested at less than half of the SPF listed on their label. For example, one was labeled SPF 30, but the protection it actually provided was about 15.  

Here are some of the top rated sunscreens according to Consumer Reports:

  • La Roche-Posay, Anthelios 60 Melt-in Sunscreen Milk, $36
  • Equate, Sport Lotion SPF 50, $5
  • Pure, Sun Defense Disney Frozen Lotion SPF 50, $6
  • Coppertone, WaterBabies Lotion SPF 50, $12
  • Equate, Ultra Protection Lotion SPF 50, $8

In its new report, Environmental Working Group claims that 73% of the 880 sunscreens it tested don't work as well as advertised or contain "worrisome" ingredients such as oxybenzone, which they claim is a hormone disruptor and retinyl palmitate, which according to government studies on animals caused they developed skin tumors.  EWG recommends choosing products with zinc oxide and titanium oxide instead.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF between 30 and 50.  More than 50 is not necessary because while properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98 percent of burning rays, an SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. High-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals than low-SPF sunscreens.  Perhaps the biggest drawback of very high SPF sunscreens is the false sense of security they provide, because people mistakenly assume they offer longer lasting protection than lower SPF sunscreens. 

Finally, use caution if using a spray sunscreen.  Creams might be better than sprays because people tend to apply creams more generously and thoroughly, whereas people tend to spray lightly and can easily miss spraying certain areas. Furthermore, sprays can become airborne and inhaled.  

Finally, using sunscreen is just one way to help prevent skin cancer.  The Skin Cancer Foundation says whenever possible, seek shade or cover your skin.  Also avoid tanning beds. 

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