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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/25/2010 9:10:18 AM ET 2010-05-25T13:10:18

To get protection from the sun’s damaging rays, you won't have to dig deep in your wallet this summer. One of the most effective sunscreens on store shelves is also one of the least expensive, according to a new Consumer Reports study. Up & Up Sport Continuous, which sells  at Target for less than $10 for two 6-ounce containers, won top honors for being the “Best Buy" sunscreen.

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The magazine tested 12 leading sunscreens to see how effective they were at blocking both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation. The products were then reevaluated after volunteers wore the screens in water for 80 minutes. In addition to the Target brand, many of the other leading sunscreens ranked by Consumer Reports offered very good protection against UVA and excellent protection against UVB at a reasonable price, the agency said.

Other brands in the top four were: Walgreens Sport Continuous; Banana Boat Sport Performance Continuous; and Aveeno Continuous Protection. All the products were tested by an outside lab. The resulting score was based on how well the sunscreen protected volunteers from burning.

Interestingly, the most expensive product, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 40 with Mexoryl SX, which costs over $18 per ounce, turned out to be one of the least effective in protecting against sunburn.

Image: Sunscreen

Given that so many products are effective, consumers will likely care as much about the scent and how the lotion or spray feels on the skin as the SPF, or sun protection factor, when picking a sunscreen, said Gayle Williams, the magazine’s deputy editor for health and family. Many of the sunscreens reviewed had a floral or citrus scent and most left the skin feeling a little oily or greasy, the magazine noted.

“People really do choose based on a sunscreen’s smell,” Williams said. “And that makes sense. You’re going to be wearing it for a long time each day.”

Video: How to chose the best sunscreen Dermatologists are pleased so many sunscreen brands received good ratings. “Shopping for a sunscreen is now like buying a box of cereal,” says Dr. Joseph Greco, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, Los Angeles and director of UCLA-Santa Monica Dermatology. “The good thing is that the brands are mostly comparable in terms of effectiveness. My recommendation is to go to the store and spend some time in the sunscreen aisle trying out various products to see which one you like best in terms of smell and feel.”

Still, Greco and other dermatologists said they would have liked to have seen more products tested, especially some that provided a better block against UVA, the sun radiation that penetrates deepest into the skin and is responsible for age spots, broken blood vessels and wrinkling — not to mention heightened cancer risk.

Scientists learned about the importance of UVA after screens to block UVB came on the market, says Dr. Suzan Obagi, an associate professor of dermatology and vice president of the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery. People started using sunscreens in the 1970s, although the formulas had very low SPF and worked only against UVB, not UVA. Since then skin cancer rates have gone up.

What happened, Obagi says, is that people felt safer with a sunscreen on and spent more time outside exposing themselves to UVA — which resulted in the rising cancer rates. “I tell people the way to remember is: the B from UVB is associated with burning, and the A from UVA is associated with aging,” she says.

The products evaluated by Consumer Reports for the most part protect the skin through chemicals that absorb ultraviolet radiation and neutralize it, Obagi explains. But you also need a physical screen — such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — to block UVA.

One other thing to keep in mind, Obagi says, is that the SPF ratings on sunscreens and sunblocks only refer to UVB protection. “So, it’s entirely possible that you could get more protection from a sunscreen with a rating of 60 than one with a rating of 80,” she says.

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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