How Does Your Sunscreen Measure Up?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

What is most important to you in a sunscreen? Do you look at the SPF? Do you pay attention to how it smells? Or how easy it is to apply?

Beware: A recent study found that almost one-half of sunscreens liked by consumers did not meet the guidelines for effectiveness outlined by the American Academy of Dermatology.** According to the AAD, for a sunscreen to be effective, it should:**

  • Have an SPF of 30 or higher

  • Be broad-spectrum (meaning it protects from both UVA and UVB rays)

  • Be water resistant

According to a recent study, not everyone buys sunscreen according to its effectiveness. A research team at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine compared consumer reviews of sunscreen against their compatibility with the AAD guidelines using the Amazon website.

The researchers found 6,500 products categorized as sunscreens and chose the top 65 according to the consumer reviews. Of those, 89 percent had an SPF of 30 or higher, 92 percent were broad-spectrum and 62 percent were labeled water resistant. So almost 40 percent of the “top rated” sunscreens did not meet the basic guidelines of what the AAD considers an effective sunscreen.

Many of the consumer comments in the reviews were based on attributes that had nothing to do with the effectiveness of the product, such as:

  • Absorbs well

  • Nice smell

  • Too thick

  • Greasy

The authors of the study also noted that many of the labels on the products contained non-pertinent information, such as “safe for sensitive skin,” “preservative free” or “noncomedogenic.” These are marketing mechanisms and do not have any bearing on effectiveness.

How to make sure your sunscreen is effective:** Check for an SPF between 30 and 50.** The American Cancer Society recommends sunscreen of at least 15 SPF but the American Academy of Dermatology suggests at least 30. The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding sunscreens with an SPF of more than 50. More important than the number, however, is applying it generously.

Besides the SPF, make sure the sunscreen states it is broad spectrum or blocks both UVA and UVB rays. It should state it is water resistant, which means it should remain effective for about 40 minutes while you are in the water or sweating. There is no such thing as water-proof or water-repellent sunscreen.

Avoid sunscreen sprays and powders. These can pose a risk if you inhale the powder or spray. If using a spray, it is suggested you spray into your hand and then apply to your skin.

Apply your sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going outdoors. It takes some time for the sunscreen to bind to your skin and give you the protection you need. If you wait until you are outside, your skin will be unprotected from the sun.

Apply your sunscreen generously. The EWG states that most people only use about one-fourth to two-thirds of the recommended amount of sunscreen. The AAD suggests one ounce of sunscreen for your entire body.

Apply sunscreen often during the day. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, more often if you are sweating, in the water or drying yourself off with a towel as all these can remove some sunscreen from your skin.


EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens: Environmental Working Group

Sunscreen Product Performance and Other Detriments of Consumer Preferences: JAMA Dermatology

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.