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Northwestern study: We’re mostly clueless about sunscreen

Using sunscreen is important, but we're often clueless about which products to buy, researchers found. | Northwestern University photo

Consumers are spending as much as 30 times more for sunscreen than needed to get a product offering the same protection, a Northwestern University study has found.

Analyzing the top-rated 1 percent of sunscreens, based on consumers’ ratings posted on Amazon.com, the researchers also found that about 40 percent of the best-rated sunscreens didn’t meet guidelines for effectiveness established by the Schaumburg-headquartered American Academy of Dermatology. That was mostly because they weren’t sufficiently sweat- or water-resistant, according to the study, reported in the journal JAMA Dermatology.

It’s the latest research showing that, even regulators updated standards for labeling sunscreen four years ago, many sunscreens still provide far less protection than advertised against ultraviolet rays that can lead to skin cancer.

Tips to protect yourself from the sun:

• Use sunscreen that protects against both harmful types of ultraviolet rays — UVA and UVB.

• Choose a sunscreen rated at least SPF 30 — considered the minimum “sun protection factor” needed. Consumer Reports’ recent testing of 65 sunscreens found more than 40 percent didn’t meet their SPF claims, so the magazine advises using SPF 40 or 50 to increase chances you’re getting at least SPF 30.

• Avoid sunscreens labeled higher than SPF 50, which protects against 98 percent of UVB rays. Higher SPF numbers falsely imply much greater protection.

• Consumer Reports recommends as “Best Buys” four sunscreens that met their claimed SPF of 50 and cost about $6 to $10: Pure Sun Defense Disney Frozen, Coppertone Water Babies, Equate Ultra Protection and No-Ad Sport. It also recommends Up & Up Kids Stick and a few sprays, including Equate Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30.

• Most people apply too little sunscreen too late and too infrequently, says Dr. Darrell Rigel of the American Academy of Dermatology’s sunscreen task force. An average-sized person should apply roughly an ounce, about two tablespoons, on all exposed skin — about twice what most people use. Apply 15 to 30 minutes before going outside, then reapply at least every two hours. With spray-on sunscreen, apply two coats, then rub it in.