How we tested
We had an outside lab determine whether products met their labeled sun protection factor (SPF), which refers to UVB rays, and how well they blocked UVA. 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."
Most claim water resistance for 80 minutes. We applied those to volunteers' backs; their backs were submerged in water for 80 minutes and then exposed to UV rays. (Two that claim water resistance with no specified time were tested for 40 minutes.)
We also checked whether the sunscreens stained cotton, polyester, a rayon/spandex blend, and a nylon/spandex blend. Our sensory testers also said how the products felt and smelled.
What we found
No one type--spray, cream, or lotion--protected best. Although most products were excellent against UVB rays before water immersion, three were just OK, and some lost effectiveness after dunking. Most were very good against UVA rays, but one was merely fair. (It's a sunscreen and bug spray in one, not the best idea: In reapplying it for sun protection, you might overdo bug protection.)
Some sprays took more than 30 seconds to dry, but one top pick dried especially fast. Many products had the familiar scent associated with summer, but one smelled a bit like plastic plus stale cooking oil. All of the more effective sunscreens tended to stain cloth.
What's inside and safety considerations
Almost every tested sunscreen contains some ingredients associated with adverse health effects in animal studies. Oxybenzone and other endocrine disruptors may interfere with hormones in the body, and nanoscale zinc and titanium oxides are linked to problems such as potential reproductive and developmental effects.
Retinyl palmitate (look for it among inactive ingredients), a type of topical vitamin A, 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. (They're footnoted in the Ratings.)
The Food and Drug Administration announced in the summer of 2011 that it was investigating the potential risks of spray sunscreens. Of particular concern to us is the possibility that people might accidentally breathe in the ingredients, a risk that's greatest in children, who--as any parent knows--are more likely to squirm around when they're being sprayed.
As a result, we now say that until the FDA completes its analysis, the products should generally not be used by or on children. We have also removed one sunscreen spray--Ocean Potion Kids Instant Dry Mist SPF 50--from the group of recommended sunscreens in our Ratings, because it is marketed especially for children.
Finally, we would like to reemphasize our longstanding advice that you use sprays carefully, by following these tips:
- Don't use sprays on children, unless you have no other product available. In that case, spray the sunscreen onto your hands and rub it on. As with all sunscreens, be especially careful on the face, taking care to avoid the eyes and mouth.
- Adults can still use sprays--but don't spray your face! Instead, spray on your hands and rub it on, making sure to avoid your eyes and mouth. And try to avoid inhaling it.
- Make sure you apply enough. Our tests have found that sprays can work well when used properly--but it is harder to make sure that you apply enough, especially when it's windy. We recommend spraying as much as can be evenly applied, and then repeating, just to be safe. On windy days, you might want to spray the sunscreen on your hands and rub it on--or just choose one of our recommended lotions instead.
Don't rely on sunscreen alone. Wear protective clothing and limit time in the sun. Your sunscreen should be water resistant, with an SPF of at least 30. Above 30, there's not much more protection. You need to reapply any sunscreen every 2 hours or so anyway and after swimming or sweating. Use 2 to 3 tablespoons of a lotion on most of your body, or "spray as much as can be evenly rubbed in," says Jessica Krant, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist, "then go back over every area and spray them all completely again."
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