Buyer Beware: Many Sunscreens Don’t Provide Proper Protection

As the sun beats down in the heat of the summer, we all know that we should be wearing sunscreen regularly. But knowing and doing are two different things, and finding the right sunscreen can be a confusing endeavor.

A new study shows that 40 percent of the top sunscreens sold do not meet guidelines from the American Academy of Dermatology, which recommends sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays (called “broad spectrum”), have an SPF of 30 or higher and be water resistant. However, the most positive feature consumers cited most often when buying sunscreen was cosmetic elegance, which has nothing to do with sun protection.

Consumers need to “separate the cosmetic component and the fun part from the functional part,” when choosing a sunscreen, says Dr. William A. Wooden, a plastic surgeon at Indiana University Health who specializes in melanoma surgery. There are enough options that consumers should be able to find a sunscreen they like that meets all the criteria, he says. He adds one more rule: Make sure to buy new sunscreen each year. Don’t use the bottle you found in the bottom of your beach bag from last summer.

In the JAMA Dermatology study, researchers examined the top one percentile of sunscreen products bought on Amazon.com as of December 2015 according to consumer ratings and the highest number of consumer reviews. They analyzed 65 products’ top five most helpful reviews, both positive and negative, in six major categories: affordability, cosmetic elegance, separate ratings, ingredients, performance and skin compatibility.

Ninety-two percent of the sunscreens purchased claimed broad-spectrum protection, and 89 percent had an SPF of 30 or higher. However, the sunscreens were weakest in water resistance. Only 62 percent were labeled water or sweat resistant.

Choosing a water and sweat-resistant sunscreen is critical for the sunscreen to protect against skin cancer and bad burns, particularly if you are swimming, boating or working outside. It’s also important to know how to use the product for the best protection.

“You need to put it on when you’re dry or it’s going to have a hard time sticking to the body,” Dr. Wooden says. “The other key thing is [it might say it’s] good for eight hours, but it will wear off, especially if you’re active.”

Dr. Wooden recommends applying several times a day if you’re outside. Reapplying during hydration breaks is a good way to remember. Wait 30 minutes for the sunscreen to dry both when you initially apply and later reapply before jumping in the water.

And don’t be stingy. You need to slather on the sunscreen all over your exposed skin. Don’t put it on in just one or two places and try to spread it everywhere. “You want a good coating,” he says. “You cannot put on too much, but it’s really easy to not put enough on.”

The study shows that consumers care about the way a sunscreen feels, whether it rubs in well or leaves a residue. Therefore, the researchers recommend that dermatologists consider the importance of cosmetic elegance, along with cost and AAD guidelines, when recommending products to patients.

— By Melanie Padgett Powers