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Getting burned – Part 3: SNEWS looks at sunscreen marketing hyperbole, offers tips for retail buyers

SNEWS investigates the world of sunscreens and finds out the Wild Wild West created by a true lack of FDA guidelines leaves us all at risk for a lot more than wrinkles. In today’s story, the third and final part, we take a closer look at marketing hyperbole and what some of these claims really mean – or not – and tips about what to ask about a sunscreen, whether you are a retail buyer or user. This concludes our exclusive three-part investigation – for now. Stay tuned as SNEWS keeps abreast of the news.

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If you’re confused, what about your poor customers? Like one woman said when we asked her recently why she had chosen the Walgreen’s Sport Ultra Dry Sunscreen SPF 50 she was using: 

“I’m so confused,” she told us, her shoulders slumping with an air of helplessness. “It’s always been a puzzle for me, so I just reach for the highest SPF number. I’m trying to get something good, so I think, ‘50, wow, that must be good.’ How do you know?”

She turned over the bottle and stared at the “Drug Facts” label” that listed the active ingredients’ names – none of which were truly effective UVA blockers — and the percentages of each that was in the sunscreen labeled as “very water / sweat resistant” in a “non-slip grip” tube.

“These things, these drug names,” she added, “they mean nothing to me.”

As a retailer, you are trusting the manufacturer to tell you the truth to help you decide what to carry on your shelves. Consumers like this woman are therefore trusting you to pick out the best product to keep them safe. But what we found in our exclusive, in-depth, three-part investigation that kicked off May 26 with the second of three parts running May 28 stunned us: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees over-the-counter drugs including sunscreen, has been unable to pass some of the most basic regulations for 32 years since it first broached the topic of sunscreen. Meanwhile, we are all left confused about what we should know, use, ask or even believe. Forget the risk of early skin aging and wrinkles. The dangers are in the risk of deadly melanoma cancer.

As a part of our investigation, we asked manufacturers who commonly exhibit at outdoor and active sports trade shows what the retailers ask them about their products. Turns out most buyers in the outdoor industry don’t know a lot about the science or the chemical ingredients, and tend to ask more performance-oriented or trendy questions: Is it fragrance free? Is it water-resistant? Does it have paraben? A few may ask questions related to the environment: Is it natural? Is it organic?

For the most part, none ask about the UVA or UVB rays, which UV rays cause cancer, the differences between the active ingredients, why they should buy one product over another, or what the backup is for a claim.

To wrap up our the third story of our three-part series, SNEWS has taken a look at some of the more common claims and sorted through them to help you make sense of them. We also cut to the chase with some key tips for retail buyers who are looking at sunscreens for their stores. Many of the questions to ask would apply to users also, of course, since they too should be educated. In a separate story, we’ve also summarized what topics the FDA is currently analyzing — not that we can say when the agency could actually do something – and given you a list of other places to further your sunscreen education.

Deciphering label lingo, hyperbole and marketing claims

Some of these you may only see on mass-market brands, although a few such as basic instructions will appear on many other brands and some are more exclusive to cosmetics.

Apply generously – Also seen as “apply liberally” or other variations meaning basically “put on a lot.” Who knows what that means? The testing standard for verifying the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) requires the application of 2 milligrams of sunscreen per 1 square centimeter of exposed skin. Yes, that’s a lot on a very small space – one centimeter is about 3/8th of an inch. And that quantity applies at this point to all types, from lotions and cremes, to sprays, gels or sticks. Studies have shown that most people only use 20 percent to 60 percent of what they should use, which also decreases the protection.

Biodegradable – There is no standard or test for this. However, the FTC requires that a product touting itself as biodegradable must “decompose within a reasonably short period of time under customary methods of disposal.” But to biodegrade something, it needs exposure to air, sun and water. We’re still not sure how that applies to sunscreen ingredients – unless they just wash off in the river — but we hope they aren’t biodegrading on our skin or in the tube.

Broad-spectrum – Per Merriam-Webster, broad-spectrum means something is “effective against a wide-range of organisms.” In sunscreen parlance, it should mean (emphasis on “should”) the product protects fully against the cancer-causing UVA rays and the burning UVB rays. But, again, there is no standard for how much UVA protection a product needs to have to slap this on the label. And nobody is watching the flock.

Chemical-free – Basically, all active sunscreen ingredients are some kind of mineral (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) or chemical (all the others), but as one scientist pointed out even the minerals are “in the chemical realm.” One sunscreen manufacturer said, “You don’t just dig zinc out of the ground.” If you wanted true chemical-free protection, you’d put a thick layer of mud on your skin or wear thick clothing and never expose your skin to the sun.

Continuous or continual protection – We found this one recently on some mass-market brands, including ones from Target, as well as Aveeno, which the July 2010 Consumer Reports analysis called “best,” and we were left scratching our heads. Per our trusted dictionary, “continuous” means “marked by uninterrupted extension in space, time, or sequence.” Whoa, dude, sounds pretty ethereal…. We have a really deep suspicion that manufacturers have turned to this ambiguous sunscreen claim as a way to imply something like “all-day protection,” which is a claim that has caught a lot of flak because it’s simply not true. And even without FDA oversight, many have started to avoid the all-day claim.

Dermatologist-approved – And who is this worldly dermatologist? Maybe he or she is one of those white coats on infomercials, one of those “4 out of 5” cited as approving of something. Again, there is no standard for this term. Meaning a manufacturer can find some dermatologist somewhere who says, “Yeah, sure, this seems good.” Voila! Dermatologist-approved.

Fragrance-free – Many manufacturers fudge on this one. Our scientist friends tell us there are certain ingredients that are officially classed as “fragrances” in the cosmetics world. So if something in a product like sunscreen is not on that list of official fragrances, even if it has a smell, the company can happily slap “fragrance-free” on the bottle. Some sunscreen manufacturers (and other cosmetic companies) actually mix in some additives that aren’t on the fragrance list but have a pleasant smell to mask what can be a rather unpleasant odor from some active ingredients – a smell one chemist likened to rancid oil.

Natural – “Ill-defined,” said several SNEWS sources. There is no official or government definition, and different manufacturing segments see it differently — again creating ambiguity. The Natural Ingredient Resource Center ( states for its purpose that the FDA refers to natural ingredients as those “extracted directly from plants or animal products as opposed to being produced synthetically.” So even if zinc oxide or titanium dioxide were “extracted directly,” they still need to be processed or put through a chemical reaction before they can be used. How natural is that? And, as one brand representative pointed out, there are lots of materials in nature that are quite toxic.

Non-comedogenic – Loved by the cosmetic industry and at once intimidating and impressive to consumers, the term means “won’t blog pores.” Also lacking oversight, it’s hard to determine if this label claim is true because a company’s method of mixing a product may affect how much, or if, it blocks pores. Heavier oils, waxes and some spray-on products with adhesives (“acrylates”) may block pores. Some lotions that penetrate the skin but still leave an oily layer may also plug up pores. Another ambiguous, mostly unproved claim. And one that is impossible for the buyer or consumer to prove unless they use it and perceive they break out more or don’t sweat as well.

Oil-free – Have you ever wondered why a product that says oil-free feels, well, oily? A manufacturer can print this claim on a product even if it contains fatty acids, such as esters – because the ingredient’s official name doesn’t include the word “oil” although it is oily, and the product is not on the official list of oils put out by the FDA. It’s all in how you slice it. 

Organic – There are two types of active sunscreen ingredients: Inorganics that are minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and “organic” chemicals such as oxybenzone or octocrylene. Guess you could then say if the product is full of these chemicals that they are “organic.” Seems like cheating to us. Other than that, nobody defines or oversees the use of the term. Here we go again: Mud is organic.

PABA-free – This is one of the more common claims but is a bit outdated. Although PABA is still one of the allowed active sunscreen ingredients, it is rarely used since it has been found to cause skin irritation. A derivative of PABA, Padimate O, is still used by some manufacturers and can still cause skin problems and allergic reactions in some.

Paraben-free – Parabens are preservatives used commonly in cosmetic products but rarely these days does a sunscreen use it.

Reef-friendlyor Reef-safe – This became a hot topic in surfing and watersports circles after one study in 2008 concluded that seven sunscreen ingredients “awakened” some viruses in algae living in coral-building species that would then spread to other coral reefs, and infect and damage them. The study was never replicated, and most experts pooh-pooh the claims. Many watersports buffs heard this once and it has stuck in their heads, so they may seek the claim on a label. Some manufacturers are more than happy to oblige although the claim is considered bogus. 

Seals of approval – Be skeptical of any pretty, official-looking seal. The Skin Cancer Foundation has a “seal of recommendation,” but if you want to apply for it, you first have to join its corporate council – for $10,000. The American Academy of Dermatology started a program in 2006 for what it called a “seal of recognition,” but it started phasing out the program as of late 2009. Insiders told us there was a heated debate about the validity and ethics of such a program at one of the group’s annual meetings since the seal was recognized to be a money-maker and would compete with the Foundation. The cost to apply was approximately $5,000. The term “cash cow” was used by several sources when we asked about such seals.

Sunblock – A tree can be a sunblock. A hat can be a sunblock. Clothing can be a sunblock. A lotion or cream may protect, but it won’t block. Still, the two mineral ingredients – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – are considered physical blockers and could partly block the sun. The problem is, nobody puts them on thick enough to do that. And the use of the term on sunscreen is misinterpreted by most consumers who assume they can rub on some and be utterly protected for as long as they stay in the sun. This one is simply misleading and, we suspect, used on purpose by some unethical manufacturers.

Waterproof/Water-resistant/Very water-resistant and Sweatproof – On labels today you see “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” but that’s only because the FDA, which proposed to ban the use of those words since their use may lead a user to not apply enough protection or reapply often enough, is immoblized. The FDA document – the one that sits in limbo – would only allow the use of “resistant” or “very resistant.” Some manufacturers maintain that their product is indeed waterproof and sweatproof. But you’re only tempting fate if you assume your sunscreen is not washing off and, as a result, you apply it less frequently. This is especially risky considering that most people don’t put on enough in the first place.

So how is the resistance tested? Per the FDA document, volunteers (who would do this?) put on the amount of sunscreen deemed as enough (refer to “Apply generously” listing, above), then sit in “an indoor fresh water pool, whirlpool and/or Jacuzzi maintained at 23 to 32 degrees Celsius” (73.4 to 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Although the testing protocol specifies the use of a still water pool as valid, manufacturers have told us that most testing facilities use moving or agitated water. To claim “water resistant,” the volunteer must apply sunscreen, and then wait to let it set and dry per the product’s instructions. Then they get into the pool for 20 minutes and do what is called “moderate activity.” There is, however, no definition for moderate activity and we were told that could be just standing up and moving around the water a little. They then get out and rest for 20 minutes without toweling off. The procedure is repeated a second time for a total of 40 minutes in the water before the volunteers are put under a solar simulator to see if they burn. (See? Who would do this?) To claim “very water resistant,” the pool-sitting period is 40 minutes for each session, for a total of 80 minutes.

Any current claims on packaging for waterproof or sweatproof must be changed if the proposals in the current FDA document are approved and published.

Ultra Dry – We don’t know what this means. But it sounds kind of cool.

Tips for retail buyers

The lack of FDA oversight and regulations, the dearth of labeling regulations, and the bounty of unclear claims and definitions leaves retailers in the dark. How can retail buyers even begin to make informed decisions about what to buy and what in good conscience to promote to their customers – let alone wear themselves or bring home to the family?

Knowing more about the more commonly used claims (in the section above) is the first step. In addition to asking questions using that information and the details about the active ingredients and UV rays contained in the first two parts of our three-part series, here are some suggestions SNEWS collected for you from story sources including scientists, chemists, manufacturers and advocates, about how to buy what’s best for your store or consumer.

  • Be a sunscreen pusher. Sun protection is a safety device, just like helmets or avalanche beacons.
  • Be skeptical. Be very, very skeptical. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at other tips, but always keep skepticism in mind.
  • Know what activity your customer is doing. For example, climbers won’t want an oily product on their hands; a mountaineer better have a super thick blocker since the UV rays are stronger at altitude; and an aerobic athlete needs to stay away from anything that is too thick or may block pores or inhibit sweating.
  • Opt for a 30 SPFsince anything lower than that might not be enough protection for athletic endeavors. If it’s higher than that, you may be spending a lot of money for very little additional protection. Granted, a 15 may be OK for short-duration, non-aerobic activities, and something that claims 45 or 50 might add a few extra ticks of protection. Anything over 50 is a fairytale right now.
  • If the star rating for protection against cancer-causing UVA rays is ever passed, choose a four-star rating. (Refer to part 2 of our story for more on the star rating system.)
  • Ask for data to substantiate the claims made by the brands, including the SPF rating, the water-resistance and, above all else, the broad-spectrum protection.
  • If your customer is particularly concerned about the environment and green or health issues, look closely at claims such as “biodegradable,” “organic,” and “natural” and probe how and why these can be made (see above section for details about the ambiguity of these words). Also ask about a brand’s use of nanoparticles since this is not revealed on labels and you may want to be upfront with your customers. 
  • In terms of broad-spectrum protection, if a brand is using avobenzone, ask what it is being used to stabilize it or ask for details about any blends or proprietary formulas. If the brand isn’t using one of the top broad-spectrum protectants (zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone or mexoryl), ask how it is making the claim. Make sure there is a higher quantity of zinc and titanium (3 percent or more and, even better, 5 percent or more). With avobenzone, best is the maximum allowed (3 percent), but if the product only contains 2 percent, find out what is making up the difference in protection and ask for substantiation.
  • Look for the percentages of each active ingredient on the label. If they aren’t there, bypass the product. (See a sample Drug Facts label to the right.)

  • Don’t buy insect repellent combinations (See details in our separate story on the FDA, active ingredients and additional resources by clicking here).
  • Try to ignore useless claims such as “ultra dry,” “reef-friendly” or “all-day protection.” 

–Therese Iknoian

This concludes an exclusive, three-part SNEWS investigation into the world of sunscreens that began May 26, 2010, and continued May 28. To further your education, we have put together a short story about what the FDA is actually looking at, from labeling to ingredients to insect repellent combination, as well as a list of the allowed active ingredients and a list of websites you can go to read even more detail – to access that resource, click here.

Stay tuned for additional stories on other trends in sun-protection, as well as news as it happens coming from the FDA, manufacturers and others involved in sunscreen and your health. We look forward to hearing from you and about any of your questions or concerns.

To read Part 1 of our three part series that ran May 26, 2010, click here.

To read Part 2 of our three part series that ran May 28, 2010, click here.