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Getting burned: Which sunscreens are best?

Since we ran our three-part investigation in late May on sunscreens detailing the risk we all face due to FDA inaction and marketing hyperbole, we have been asked the simplest question over and over by retailers and consumers: Which sunscreens are best? This isn’t so easy to answer, but SNEWS lays out its parameters and brand tips.

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Since we ran our three-part investigation in late May on sunscreens detailing the risk we all face due to FDA inaction and marketing hyperbole, we have been asked the simplest question over and over by retailers and consumers: Which sunscreens are best?

The problem is, that’s not the simplest question to answer for many reasons.

>> Labels don’t always tell you the full story about the ingredients and how they could be altered, stabilized, combined, encapsulated, nano’d or otherwise modified, thus potentially affecting their application, wear and protection ability.

>> Sunscreen brand’s formulas change constantly, because science is changing so quickly. If we name a brand now, it may be different by the time you get to the next show and stop by to take a look. In fact, it may be different even if the label and the ingredients look the same from one season to the next.

>> Chemical formulations and modifications in general in sunscreen products are changing so quickly, there is no telling how effective many of them are all the time. What is good, considered safe and is recommended this year may be nixed next year.

>> Personal sunscreendemands or needs are different, from watersports, gear friction, long-term wear, sweat-resistance, resistance to burning eyes, protection at altitude, allergic reactions, location of use on body, ingredient irritation, or ethical sensitivity to some environmental or health issues. We can’t guess what is best for each individual.

With that in mind, we can tell you what we at SNEWS are looking for in our sunscreens, their use and application.

>> We demand one of the few fully broad-spectrum ingredients best for protection also from cancer-inducing UVA rays. For us, our first choices are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — that’s just our personal preference these days, knowing what we know. A stabilized version of avobenzone, such as Parsol 1789, also works for us. Mexoryl, too, is a good choice, but since we don’t tend to shop at cosmetic counters, we don’t usually stumble across it since it’s only allowed for use by L’Oreal currently. Oxybenzone is in a gray area since there are reports of possible health risks; granted, they haven’t really been proved yet and may just be a spectacular warning that never materializes, but whether you use it or not is a personal choice. We sometimes have and still do, but it’s not our top pick for the best of broad-spectrum protection.

>> We put aside our vanity. If we turn a little bit white from the application of sunscreen, so what? When we’re trail running, hiking or even gardening, we don’t care what we look like anyway, so why should this matter? And most brands have worked with the zinc and titanium enough or encapsulated it sufficiently so that the white is such a minor trace that frankly only you will notice.

>> We choose 30 SPF for most endeavors. We don’t shy away from a 50, but we don’t insist on it since believe it won’t give us that much more protection. We only use a 15 for some non-challenging activity, like going for a short walk around the neighborhood or lolly-gagging around outside under shade (where you do still get UV radiation). A 15 SPF is also in our daily arsenal and in day moisturizers for face, neck, arms and hands. Below 15 SPF we don’t bother, and, at this point, more than a 50 isn’t worth any more.

>> When pursuing active or sweaty endeavors, we like “stickier,” thicker sunscreens since they stay put better. The ones that feel like a light face cream may delight the senses, but if you wipe the sweat from your face enough times or rub backpack straps across your arms, those thin delights will come right off. Since we don’t really know which of the thinner-feeling ones will stay put with wear, we choose to hedge our bets.

>> We have a shelf full of tubes and bottles — and that’s not counting the ones we are sent to try since they don’t stick around for our use if they don’t pass muster. Most people should have a collection of sunscreens for various uses, activities and perhaps even where you are going to spread it on your body and how long you plan to be in the sun — or if you’re just going to loiter around the BBQ with a wine glass in hand. We have — and use — some of the thinner-feeling ones for non-athletic challenges such as at the BBQ. We often use different ones on our hands and face as we do on our arms or legs, for example.

>> Alternative carriers are maybes: Sprays are OK if they get you to use protection but put on “enough” (no, we can’t tell you what that means really since the testing rules are a little wish-washy when it comes to non-lotions), and rub it around afterward for best coverage. We like sprays for our legs, plus they’re great to help friends or spouses get the tops of their heads, back of shoulders or back of the neck. We aren’t at this point convinced when it comes to sticks, although as a targeted re-application for tip of nose or top of ears, they are a great take-along emergency protection. Also something really waxy could clog pores or inhibit sweating so beware of your personal sensitivities.

>> We won’t use sunscreen / insect repellent combos.

>> We have cleared our shelves of old bottles. The protection in sunscreens should last from two to three years — assuming you don’t keep it in the sun or heat — but we know we have had some hanging around that’s older — no more.

>> If you don’t know the ingredients or the percent used of each because it is not on the label or website, don’t buy it. Many websites don’t tell you this vital information. We think consumers need to know, and the brands should educate, just as stores must more proactively.

With all of this in mind, these are the brands (in alphabetical order) that are currently in our arsenal for one use or another or for one body part or another based on the above parameters. Take note: We may not use or approve of all of the products by each brand since our use is based on the parameters listed above. We are just noting these are a few brands that put out some sunscreen products in which we have confidence.

We may find more brands this summer and, in fact, some may fall off this list, too. And there may be some popular outdoor brands that are not on the list since we have not used some of their most recent formulations. These are also likely not the only brands that meet our requirements, which we laid out above this list of brands. If you are with a sunscreen brand that is not on this list and would like us to take a look, please contact us about how to get samples our way; if you use a sunscreen you consider a favorite, but it’s not on this list and have questions, please drop us a note also.

The goal — as a buyer or user — is to be educated, so check the ingredients, check how it feels and, as a buyer, know what your customer does. Our three-part series of stories in May (links below) we think is the best place to start or to continue your education. And we’d love to hear your comments, questions or feedback at

–Therese Iknoian

Getting burned – Part 1: SNEWS uncovers sunscreen confusion, misinformation and FDA inaction (May 26, 2010)

Getting burned – Part 2: SNEWS reveals how sunscreen chemical ingredients really work — or don’t (May 28, 2010)

Getting burned – Part 3: SNEWS looks at sunscreen marketing hyperbole, offers tips for retail buyers (May 31, 2010)

Getting burned – resources: SNEWS offers summaries of FDA actions on sunscreen, ingredients and resources (May 31, 2010)

SNEWSitorial: Revelations in SNEWS’ ‘Getting Burned’ sunscreen investigation demand legislative, federal action (June 4, 2010)