Many Sunscreens Aren't the SPF They Claim to Be
By Stacey Feintuch
When you head out into the sun, you know that you and your family should be liberally covered in sunscreen, even if it's cloudy or freezing out. Sure, you sometimes don't use or reapply enough sunscreen or fail to rub it in properly. And you may ditch the hat and cover-up since they just don't match your new bikini. But you rely on that product—with its SPF touted on the label—to keep you and your family safe from the sun's harmful rays.
Unfortunately, your sunscreen may not be protecting you as much as you think, according to a new report from Consumer Reports. The magazine tested and rated more than 60 sprays, lotions and sticks with sun protection factors (SPF) of 30 or higher. They found that 28 of them weren't the SPF they claimed to be on the label. And three had an SPF of less than 15. That's not enough sun protection! The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends choosing a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30.
The magazine says they've seen this pattern of results over several years. Of all the sunscreens they've tested over the past four years, half came in under the SPF on the label and one-third were under SPF 30.
Why is this happening?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't test sunscreens regularly. Rather, it requires that manufacturers test their products. But companies don't have to give the FDA the test results (just keep them on-hand in case the FDA asks for them). And products only have to be tested on people when a new product is released or when one is reformulated.
Why is this a big deal?
The sun may feel good as it warms your skin, but it can be harmful to you. Overexposure to UVA (aging ultraviolet rays) and UVB (burning ultraviolet rays) that are emitted from the sun can lead to skin cancer, says the AAD. UVA rays can also prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn.
So what should you do?
Your best bet is to choose a chemical sunscreen (also known as organic)—which means it contains carbon compounds—with an SPF of 40 or higher. That will give you a better likelihood of getting a product with at least an SPF of 30.
A few of our top sun safety tips include:
Apply liberally. You want to use enough sunscreen to generously coat all skin that won't be covered by clothing, says the AAD. The average person needs 1 ounce, which is the equivalent of about 2 tablespoons—enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass. Your face needs a dollop the size of a nickel. Read more at The 10 Biggest Sunscreen Mistakes.
Apply it before you go out. It takes about 15 minutes for your skin to absorb sunscreen. So you want to apply sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors, says the AAD. That practice will help ensure that you're protected right when you get outside. Read more at Why Using Sunscreen Is Not Enough.
Apply it even if it's cloudy or overcast. The sun's rays can pass through clouds. In fact, up to 80 percent of the sun's harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin, even on cloudy days, says the AAD. Read more at 9 Sunscreen Booby Traps to Avoid.
Apply even if you're covered. Regardless of whether you're sitting under an umbrella or wearing a hat, put on the sunscreen. Light can bounce onto you from reflective surfaces like concrete or dry sand. And hats are usually not large enough to shade your vulnerable ears, neck and nose.
Reapply often. Reapply sunscreen—even if it claims to be sweat- or waterproof—every two hours or immediately after swimming, toweling off or sweating profusely.
Apply regardless of your skin tone. Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of the color of their skin. Yes, it's more common among lighter-skinned people, but people with darker skin can still develop skin cancer.
Monitor the expiration date. All sunscreens are required by the FDA to keep their original strength for at least three years. So, toss any sunscreen that's past its expiration date. Otherwise, the product won't provide you with its original strength. No date on the bottle? Mark the purchase date on the bottle with a permanent marker. That way you'll know when to throw it away. Also look for signs that the sunscreen isn't good anymore, such as changes in the product's consistency or color. Toss the bottle and get a new one.