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Your Sunscreen Might Only Be Half as Effective as the Bottle Claims It Is

A new report is the stuff of dermatologists' nightmares.

Consumer Reports released a new report on Thursday evaluating more than 60 sunscreens currently on the market, and the results were the stuff of dermatologists' nightmares. To get right to the point: "For the fifth year in a row, CR's testing has shown that some sunscreens failed to provide the level of protection promised on the package," according to the report. What's more, "of the more than 60 lotions, sprays, sticks and lip balms in our ratings this year, 23 tested at less than half their labeled SPF number." Yikes.

Although sunscreen is a more regulated product category than, say, color cosmetics (which is famously under-regulated in the U.S., especially when compared to Europe's strict ingredient standards), it's classified as an over-the-counter drug. So while the FDA requires that the formulas be tested to determine the correct SPF, it's each company's responsibility to have their own products tested; the FDA itself doesn't regularly conduct tests.

"Most of the time, a sunscreen's effectiveness has been verified only by the manufacturer and any testing lab it might decide to use — and not by the government," explains William Wallace, an analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, in the report.

Consumer Reports tested more than 60 products for both UVA and UVB protection in order to determine how closely each formula matched the SPF number listed on the packaging. Out of all of the options tested, only 15 sunscreens received "Excellent" overall ratings and earned CR's "recommended" designation. Those products include La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk Lotion, Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+, Equate Sport Lotion SPF 50, Pure Sun Defense Disney Frozen Lotion SPF 50, and Banana Boat SunComfort Clear Ultramist Spray SPF 50+.

One alarming finding was that even within brands, various products were found to have varying degrees of effectiveness. So, for example, Coppertone Sport High Performance Spray SPF 30 earned a "Poor" rating for variation from its SPF, but other formulas from Coppertone received high scores. So it's not as simple as choosing a go-to brand and sticking to it.

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And for those who tend to favor mineral or physical sunscreens (often those that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) rather than those that feature chemical active ingredients (most commonly oxybenzone, avobenzone), the news isn't good. "As in previous years, Consumer Reports could not find a mineral-based sunscreen — often referred to as 'natural' sunscreens — that delivers the whole package," according to the report. "This was despite the fact that CR added more mineral sunscreens to its tests and included products with higher concentrations of the active ingredients than it did before." The only mineral-based product that received a "Good" score in the report was California Kids #Supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+

So, what's the takeaway? Don't totally freak out. But pay attention, and take these testing results with a grain of salt. "There are many different ways that sunscreens are tested, some in the lab and some in the real world," says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "Different sunscreens may perform better or worse depending on the method used to evaluate them." And whatever you do, don't use this as an excuse to stop using sunscreen altogether. "Wear sunscreen because it protects you from developing skin cancer," says Zeichner. "Use a product with at least SPF 30, but I recommend even higher. A higher SPF is like a safety net to ensure the highest level of protection, even if we are not applying as much as we should and not reapplying as frequently as is recommended." And the higher the SPF on the bottle, the higher the likelihood that you're getting some level of adequate sun protection (after all, even an "SPF 60" that only really provides SPF 30 is better than throwing in the sunscreen towel altogether).

The full report, which features the complete product ratings, is featured in the July 2017 issue of Consumer Reports.

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