Consumer Reports recently issued its annual sunscreen rankings just as we're starting to shop for sunscreen again. The consumer magazine ranked Coppertone Water Babies and Walmart's Equate SPF 50 highest for lotions in terms of price and protection from UV rays; for sprays, Bull Frog WaterArmor Sport and Target's Up & Up took the top rating.
While most of us wouldn't think to head to the beach without any sunscreen, some of us get a little lazy about applying lotion when heading out to a ballgame or on a bike ride. But a new research finding may provide a little extra motivation — especially for using sunscreen on kids heading off to camp for the day.
Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital's Channing Lab examined survey data from more than 100,000 nurses participating in the Harvard Nurses Health study and found that those who had at least five blistering sunburns when they were 15 to 20 years old had a 68 percent increased risk for common skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas and an 80 percent increased risk of the deadlier melanoma by the time they reached middle age.
"Sudden large amounts of sun exposure that cause major damage to the skin increased the risk of melanoma as much as having a family history," said study coauthor Dr. Abrar Qureshi, chair of dermatology at Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School.
I asked Qureshi and Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, to provide tips on buying and using sunscreen to maximize sun protection while minimizing certain safety concerns about these products.
1. Spray or lotion? Which is more protective?
Both experts preferred lotions over sprays. "With sprays, people often don't apply enough to get the full sunscreen protection," Qureshi said. "But sprays are good for hard to reach places like the back, so you may want to use a combination."
Rangan expressed concerns about unknown safety risks from inhaling the mist that forms in a sunscreen spray cloud. Certain active ingredients in chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone or avobenzone might interfere with reproductive hormones, while physical blockers such as titanium dioxide — now found in some sprays — could be carcinogenic when inhaled into the lungs.
"Make an effort not to inhale these sprays," Rangan said. "Don't use them on a windy beach, and try to use lotion as much as possible on kids."
2. Have the new federal requirements for sunscreen labeling helped improve products?
"Yes, I think we have more assurance of broad-spectrum protection from both UV-A rays as well as UV-B rays," Rangan said. But, she added, the US Food and Drug Administration could move faster to approve new active ingredients, many of which are already used in European sunscreens. "If there are safer alternatives to chemicals than those now used, it would benefit consumers to have them."
3. What's the biggest mistake we make when using sunscreens? Assuming that a super-high SPF product will protect us all day is probably the most common reason we get burned. Both experts, as well as the FDA, said products with SPF's higher than 50 likely don't offer substantially more protection than those with an SPF of 50. "You really need to reapply them every two hours or immediately after swimming," Rangan said. Once your skin doesn't have that greasy sheen, the sunscreen is likely to have worn off. Qureshi added that products with an SPF of 15 or under should be applied every hour to keep skin from burning. "The higher SPF products will give you double the time of protection," he said, and will help protect you a bit more if you don't slather on as much as recommended.
4. What about foods? Can what we eat help protect us from the sun? Spinach, berries, tomatoes, and other foods rich in antioxidants can help the body repair skin damage caused by the sun, both experts agreed, but they should not be considered a replacement for sunscreen. How about a new drinkable SPF water supplement made by Osmosis Skin Care? The manufacturer promises that drinking 2 millimeters every four hours will "neutralize radiation" and "enhance tanning" through water molecules that vibrate beneath the skin.
“That seems crazy,” Rangan said. “I don’t think people should be relying on unproven ways of protecting themselves.”