The best sun protection money can buy turns out to be the cheapest. A new study by Consumer Reports found that the most effective sunscreens on the market are also the least expensive.
The magazine tested the ability of 22 sprays, creams and lotions to protect against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation. Exposure to UVA is linked to skin cancer, as well as aging, while exposure to UVB is associated with burning.
For the second year in a row, Up & Up’s Sport Continuous SPF 30 -- a Target store brand -- won top honors as the best buy, being one of four with top marks for effectiveness and costing just $0.88 per ounce.
Three other brands were rated highly for their UVA, UVB protection and reasonable price:
- Banana Boat Sport Performance SPF 30
- Coppertone Sport Ultra Sweatproof SPF 30
- CVS Fast Cover Sport SPF 30.
Consumer Reports also tested for water resistance. After volunteers' backs were immersed for 80 minutes most of the 22 products held up under the prolonged soaking. But three -- Badger SPF 30, All Terrain AquaSport performance SPF 30 and Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist -- which weren't rated that highly to start, lost some of their effectiveness after being submerged in water.
Neutrogena spray and lotion scored among the lowest in two SPF categories, with a poor rating for staining and a fair score for ultraviolet protection. In addition, All Terrain's SPF was on average 10 percent below its claimed 30, Consumer Reports found.
One brand in particular was considered a poor buy for the cost. At a whopping $18.82 per ounce, La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 40 had a lower overall score than No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45, which cost a mere 59 cents per ounce.
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With so many products receiving high ratings for effectiveness, sunscreen buyers may end up focusing on personal preferences, such as how the lotion or spray smells and feels on the skin.
Some sound surprisingly icky. All Terrain AquaSport performance SPF 30 has an odor described as “slightly stale oil scent mixed with plastic,” while Burt’s Bees Chemical-Free SPF 30 has “a strong smell of plastic (reminiscent of a plastic beach ball), artificial almond and Play-Doh.”
Burt’s Bees also got bad marks on the feel front: “Quite a bit of pale pink-tinted white residue that feels waxy, draggy, and slightly tacky. Panelists wanted to wash it off."
A more positive description was given to Aveeno Continuous Protection SPF 85, which has a "slight amount of sweet floral scent" and "very slight draggy residue." Draggy means that a product "pulled" when it was rubbed on an arm. Target's top-scoring Up & Up was described as a "slight to moderate floral and citrus scent," with a "very slight oily, draggy residue."
Dr. David Beynet welcomed the expanded sensory testing. If people have a bad first experience with a sunscreen they might decide to forgo the products altogether, so knowing what to expect when buying a lotion could help with compliance, explained Beynet, an instructor in the division of dermatology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The No. 1 complaint I hear from patients is about how a sunscreen feels or looks on the skin,” Beynet said.
In a change from previous years, the new report warns that ingredients contained in many of the sunscreens have been associated with adverse health effects in animals. For example, seven of the 22 sunscreens tested by the magazine contain retinyl palmitate, an antioxidant that animal studies have linked to an increased risk of skin cancers. The ingredient also readily converts to retinoids, which are found in some acne medications and which studies have linked with the risk of birth defects.
Benefits outweigh risks?
Many of the sunblocks also contain endocrine disrupters, such as oxybenzone. These substances can interfere with sex hormones and might have an impact on sexual development and reproduction.
Jamie Hirsh, a senior associate editor at Consumer Reports, said that the magazine wanted to point out the new research on these ingredients, but didn’t want to scare people off using sunscreens.
“The studies are ongoing,” she said. “And at this point we believe that the well established benefits of protecting against the sun outweigh the risks. A lot of the research is preliminary and right now there are just animal studies.”
Still, Hirsch said, pregnant women might want to be extra careful and avoid screens that contain these ingredients.
Beynet was a bit more cautious.
“Right now there isn’t a lot of data on these chemicals and harmful effects, and so there’s a grey area,” he said. “It’s more scary when it comes to kids. They’re absorbing all these chemicals and we don’t know what’s happening.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use sunscreen on ourselves and our kids, Beynet said. But we should turn to other methods for sun protection first, like bringing an umbrella to the beach and staying out of the sun during peak hours of the day.
“So you should avoid the sun when you can and when you can’t use sunscreen,” Beynet advised. “Every day I see skin cancers that are terrible. So, you need to protect against that.”Story: New drugs help melanoma patients live longer
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. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic."
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