Consumer Reports GreenerChoices Consumer Reports GreenerChoices -- Join our FREE e-mail newsletter

Greener Choices Home > Safe sun protection: Green buying guide 5/12

Print this page
Safe sun protection: Green buying guide 5/12
(This article is adapted from the June 2012 Consumer Reports magazine.)

Sunscreens are an important tool for sun protection and a must when outdoors with exposed skin, but before you go out to buy a top-performing product, be sure to consider all the other ways to protect yourself from UVB and UVA radiation.

Minimizing the risks

UVB radiation is the chief cause of sunburn and skin cancer, while UVA radiation is more constant, year-round, and penetrates the skin more deeply, causing both premature aging and skin cancer. UV radiation may promote skin cancer in two ways: by damaging the DNA in skin cells, and by weakening the body’s natural defenses against cancer cells.

Remember that the risk of skin cancer is real. No one is exempt, including people with dark skin. But you and your family are at increased risk if you have fair skin, moles, light eyes, or a family history of cancer, or if you’ve had a lot of sunburns and/or exposure to sun throughout your life, or you live in a sunny area.

Before you go outside, check the UV Index provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. If it’s high, try to minimize exposure time, especially from noon to 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest. If you’re going to the beach, go out earlier in the morning or late in the day.

Remember, the SPF number on sunscreen labels is for protection against only UVB radiation. There is no protection factor on labels for UVA radiation. Instead, look for the term “broad-spectrum protection” on the label. Although the Food and Drug Administration proposed a one-to-four-star labeling system for UVA protection in 2007, it's still not in effect, and most tested products simply claim "broad-spectrum protection."

According to the FDA, products with an SPF of greater than 50 haven’t been shown to provide greater protection. That’s why you’ll see that the maximum SPF value on sunscreens is now just labeled “50+.” For the best protection against the sun’s bad rays, look for a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50+.

The FDA says: "People over the age of 50 and under the age of 5 are generally more sensitive to the harmful effects of UV. Those with immune deficiencies and chronic diseases also tend to be more susceptible to the side-effects of UV exposure."

Kids require caution

The FDA’s advice is to apply sunscreen (cream or lotion, not spray) to children older than 6 months every time they go out. But before applying sunscreen to children under 6 months old, consult a physician. Minimizing child-hand contact with sunscreens will also minimize possibility for inadvertent ingestion.

The FDA announced in the summer of 2011 that it was investigating the potential risks of spray sunscreens. Of particular concern is the possibility that people might accidentally breathe in the ingredients, a risk that's greatest in young children, who--as any parent knows--are more likely to squirm around when they're being sprayed, and could accidentally breathe or ingest the ingredients.

Consumer Reports says that until the FDA completes its analysis, spray products should generally not be used by or on children.

Check chemicals on ingredient labels

Almost every sunscreen in Consumer Reports’ tests contains some ingredients associated with adverse health effects in animal studies. Five ingredients have been singled out: oxybenzone and other endocrine disruptors may interfere with hormones in the body; nanoscale zinc and titanium oxides are linked to problems such as potential reproductive and developmental effects; and retinyl palmitate (look for it among inactive ingredients), is an antioxidant that animal studies have linked to an increased risk of skin cancers. In skin, it converts readily to retinoids, associated with a risk of birth defects in people using acne medications containing them. As a precaution, pregnant women may want to avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate.

Recommended brands

In tests of sunscreen sprays, creams, and lotions, Consumer Reports found several that provided excellent protection against UVB radiation even after immersion in water, along with very good protection against UVA radiation.

Among tested products with SPF 30 (blocks 97 percent of UV rays), two lotions were highly recommended: All Terrain Aqua Sport and Eco All Natural Sunscreen Body.

Among tested products with SPF 40-50 (blocks 97 to 98 percent of UV rays), No-Ad Lotion with Aloe & Vitamin E SPF 45 earned top marks.

Sunscreen with insect repellent: a no-no

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that consumers avoid products that mix sunscreen with insect repellent containing "deet," a pesticide. Unlike repellents, sunscreens are meant to be applied liberally and often, so using a combination product could result in unnecessarily high exposure to repellents. Another reason not to use a combo: Many mosquitoes tend to bite long after the highest risk of sun damage has passed.

Steps for extra protection
• Remember that UV radiation can also penetrate clouds—so you still need protection on cloudy days.

• Wear clothing that’s made from tightly knit fabrics as a barrier against the sun’s rays and wear a tightly woven wide- brimmed hat to protect heads, ears, and face. If you can see through the clothing or hat when you hold it up to light, it isn’t as tightly woven as it should be.

• Wear sunglasses to protect eyes against both UVA and UVB rays.

• Take extra shirts to stay dry as wet clothing provides far less sun protection than dry clothing.

• Be sure to use a water resistant sunscreen if swimming or sweating. Water resistance claims on the front label must indicate whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating, based on standard testing. Read the label and reapply as directed.

• If you’re at the beach lie under an umbrella. Choose one that you can’t see through; a thicker one should offer more UV protection.

• Buy shorts a bit big for kids to cover more skin.

• Rinse off when you go back indoors and take baths after a day at the beach to avoid chemicals staying on the skin.
Related links

Sunscreen buying guide. 4/12

Personal care products: green buying guide. 12/10

Is it a mole or a melanoma? 7/11

FDA’s sunscreen labeling requirements.

FDA Sun safety: save your skin

About   |   Newsroom   |   Your privacy rights   |   Security   |   Contact us
Copyright © 2007-2014 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit