Do most sunscreens live up to their SPF claims?

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A new finding by Consumer Reports is bad news for anyone who wants to have major summer fun (without getting major sun damage). For the fourth year in a row, the magazine tested sunscreens (over 60 sprays, lotions, and sticks with SPF 30 or higher), and found that 43 percent of the products don’t live up to their SPF claims. Is anyone else running inside?

And this result is no outlier: Consumer Reports says roughly half of the 104 sunscreens its team has tested over the past four years have had inflated SPFs on their labels (and a third have actually been below SPF 30).

Plus, when it comes to mineral sunscreens (which contain titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both), a whopping 74 percent of those tested didn’t match their SPF claim (compared to 42 percent of products with chemical formulations). Not a great report card on what is normally a more natural alternative. It’s not clear from the report why mineral sunscreens fared less well—but we are looking into the question.

And what about waterproof sunscreen? It basically does not exist, and since 2014 it’s been illegal for brands to use the word “waterproof” on labels. When products claim to be water-resistant for 40 or 80 minutes, that’s probably not a number that has been verified by the FDA—so you should just make sure to always reapply after a dip.

The FDA requires companies to test their products and put the SPF on their label, but they don’t routinely test the sunscreens themselves. So, in most cases, brands that make sunscreen don’t submit their results and just keep them on hand in case they’re asked. Thankfully, Consumer Reports is taking its decades of research—and delivering it directly to the FDA.

If this leaves you feeling a bit freaked out, don’t worry, you won’t have to hide out in a darkened room all summer. Read on for tips on making sure your skin’s safe in the sun.

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Photo: Heather Blacklock via Flickr

1. Opt for a higher SPF

Because most SPFs proved to be lower than they claimed, you might be better off choosing an SPF that’s slightly higher than you actually want.

sunscreen application
Photo: Thao Trang via Flickr

2. Reapply often

The odds will be more in your favor if you just make it a habit of reapplying as frequently as possible, so that despite the (perhaps false) SPF rating, your skin’s covered. And make sure you’re applying it correctly.


Photo: Nassau News via Flickr

3. Stick with brands you trust

Out of the mineral-based sunscreens that Consumer Reports tested, Alba Botanicals Very Emollient Sport SPF 45 scored the highest (#17 out of 35 lotions) and actually met its SPF claim, and Goddess Garden Organics Everyday Natural 30 spray met its claim as well.

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4. When in doubt, keep covered

Investing in a chic rash guard or SPF-protective clothing, wearing a hat, or staying under an umbrella at the beach are all good rules to abide by. The shade is your friend.

Once you’re outside and fully lathered up in a high SPF, try this outdoor barre workout that you can do on a towel. Want some beachy waves while you’re at it? These 7 sprays give you that wavy, just-stepped-out-of-the-ocean hair—naturally, of course.

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