When you shop for sunscreen, what do you look for? A Consumer Reports survey finds half of sunscreen wearers say what's most important is the SPF, or sun protection factor. But Consumer Reports' lab tests reveal that you can't always rely on that claim.
Consumer Reports tested 20 sprays and lotions that claim to be water resistant and provide "broad spectrum" protection. Broad spectrum means they should protect against two types of ultraviolet rays: UVB rays, which cause sunburn, and UVA rays, which are linked to skin aging. Both types contribute to skin cancer.
To test, Consumer Reports applied sunscreen to panelists' backs and had them soak in a tub for 80 minutes. Then the panelists were exposed to UVA or UVB rays, and their backs were examined a day later for color. It's protection from UVB rays that SPF quantifies.
Eighteen of the 20 sunscreens that Consumer Reports tested came in below the SPF they promise on their packages, although except for two they did provide adequate protection.
Consumer Reports can't say why its test results differ from the manufacturers'. In some cases Consumer Reports found that the SPF was off by just a little. But two sunscreens were off by much more. Beyond Coastal Natural is claimed to have an SPF of 30, but testers found that its SPF was below 15. Banana Boat Kids' SPF was also below 15, though it is claimed to be SPF 50.
The tests also found that several of the sunscreens are less effective than others at protecting against UVA rays.
Consumer Reports did find seven sunscreens to recommend:
• Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 from Walmart, a Consumer Reports Best Buy
• Up & Up Sport SPF 50 spray from Target, a Consumer Reports Best Buy
• BullFrog Water Armor Sport InstaCool SPF 50+ spray
• Well at Walgreens Sport SPF 50 spray
• Banana Boat Ultra Defense Max Skin Protect SPF 110 spray
• Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 lotion
• Neutrogena Ultimate Sport SPF 70+ lotion
Complete Ratings and recommendations on all kinds of products, including appliances, cars & trucks, and electronic gear, are available on Consumer Reports' website.