Features July 1, 1999 Issue

Sunscreens: We Test Nine

Depending on your skin type, just about any sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or above should provide sufficient burn protection. For sailors, we recommend one of the waterproof brands that won't run or wash off.

Nowadays, maximum sun times and ozone reports are part of the daily news. More and more people worry about the chances of getting a bad burn, and dermatologists recommend using sunscreen year round. Because sailors tend to receive more sun than just about anybody, we checked out a sample of sunscreens.

What we found out surprised us a bit. In all, we tested nine products from four companies, even going so far as to paint strips on our fearless testerís belly to find out if any pink stripes would crop up after some time in the sun. We sweated in the stuff, swam in it, even got an entire family involved one day at a water park.

Sunscreens are designed to filter out either UVB rays, which cause burning, or UVA rays, believed to break down collagen in the skin, or both, in which case they are labeled ďbroad spectrum.Ē The jury is still out on whether either of these rays causes cancer, but because severe, blistering sunburns have been linked to skin cancer in later life, sunscreen is a prudent precaution.

Most sunscreens contain a few basic ingredients. Cinnamates (e.g., p-methoxycinnamate) and anthrianlates block UVB but only small amounts of UVA. Salicylate blocks UVB. Benzophenone (e.g., oxybenzone) blocks UVB and up to 60% of UVA. Avobenzone blocks UVA. Obviously, a lotion with a combinationóespecially with a benzophenoneóis the best bet.

PABA and related esters are effective at blocking UVB, but can stain clothes and teak, sting the skin, and cause allergic reactions. We omitted them.

Sun blocks work by either reflecting or absorbing sun rays, with the higher SPF (sun protection factor) screens working on the absorbent principle. (The SPF factor, by the way, refers only to UVB protection.) SPF factors, regulated by the FDA, have been found to be reliable, so you can believe what you read on the label.

Manufacturers, incidentally, warn against applying sunscreen to infants under six months old, because the active ingredients will be absorbed by the body. Zinc oxide, the stuff lifeguards use on their noses, is a reflector and was found in several of our lower SPF screens.

What we eventually discovered was that itís just as important how you use the product as what product you use. For example, almost all of the products recommend applying the product anywhere from 15 minutes to 40 minutes before going out in the sun. Presumably thatís so the lotion will penetrate the skin far enough to work. Youíd think that on a day when safe sun time was, say 20 minutes, you should be able to go out right away and the sunscreen would start working just when you needed it, but apparently itís not worth taking that risk.

We also learned that you need to wait at least 15 minutes, if not longer, before going into the water with sunscreen onóeven if it says itís waterproof. When we tested the Body Shopís Ultra Protection Sun Block (SPF 25), one tester applied it a good hour before exposure, one 15 minutes before going into the water, and another went in right after applying. Only the people and body parts that stayed out of the water for some time after initial application stayed burn-free three hours later. After reapplying and waiting, our burning slowed considerably. Manufacturers caution that even waterproof screens require reapplication after youíve toweled off.

Water-resistant supposedly means that a lotion retains its original SPF after 40 minutes in the water; and waterproof means after 80 minutes. So-called ďsportsĒ lotions are expected to meet waterproof standards and also be sweatproof or sweat-resistant.

Researchers have found that using sunscreens and bug repellents containing DEET in combination can result in diminished functioning of the sunscreen. They suggest waiting a full hour after applying sunscreen before adding bug juice. We tested Off Skintastic (SPF 30), and though we canít speak for its bug-repelling abilities, its effectiveness as a sunscreen didnít seem diminished.

One new product that is becoming popular is sunscreen in a spray pump. Sounds like a good idea. You still get sun protection, but donít have to get your hands messy, right? Well, not quite. You do get to spray it on, which is a little nicer than glopping up your hands, but itís hard to get even coverageóyou tend to get a mottled splotchy application, and the directions say to rub the lotion in after applying anyway. If, like us, you have a tendency to spray one section at a time, rubbing in as you go along, then youíre faced with the challenge of having to manage a spray pump with greasy hands. Hardly the convenience it first seems.

The one advantage of using a pump is for people (you know who you are) who normally wouldnít bother with anything. You guys should go ahead and buy this stuff, and even if you donít rub it in, youíre still ahead of where you would be if you were using nothing at all. So far we havenít seen any sprays with a higher SPF than 15, probably because the higher SPF formulas tend to be thicker. One assumes a lotion of that thickness wonít break down into a thin mist.

The SPF rating does not indicate exactly how much more protection you get from the sunís rays, but how much more time you can spend in the sun. Itís a fine point, and probably the two basically come down to the same thing. But say, for example, the weather forecaster says the safe sun time at peak hours (thatís 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) is 15 minutes. (A typical time this summer in the northeast.) A sunscreen with a SPF of 6 means that you can stay out six times as long, or 90 minutes, before the sun causes severe damage. If youíre only going to be out for an hour, you can use an SPF 6 or an SPF 30 and it wonít matteróthe sun wonít get through.

However, if youíre using SPF 6 and you stay out for two hours, youíll get burned no matter how often you reapply. Itís just not enough protection. You will only get burned about a sixth of what you would have suffered unprotected, but youíll still get some reddening and/or damage.

Also, even if youíre wearing an SPF 25 or 40, those lotions only work if you keep the sunscreen on. Even the sport lotions that claim to be waterproof recommend that wearers reapply after two hours, or any time after exercising or coming out of the water. Even with our tough standards, we donít expect a sunscreen to stay on for eight hours. But if you keep it on, those lotions can protect you all day in a way that SPF 6 wonít, no matter how many times you reapply.

Clear as mud, right?

Finally, we found that it really is best to have a couple of different SPF formulas around. For an hour or two in the sun, even fair-skinned people can probably get away with 15óitís for those full days in the sun that youíll want the higher protection.

So why not just always use the high SPF? Well, cost, for one thing. As SPF goes up, so does the price, sometimes doubling or tripling between the lowest number offered and the highest in the line. An example: No-Ad sunscreen is available in SPFs ranging from 2 ($3.69 for a 16-ounce bottle) to 45 ($10.97 for the same size). Thatís a difference of 44Ę per ounce.

An ounce, by the way, is one applicationís worth according to dermatologists, so when you read those prices remember thatís also a per application price.

We tested only the types of sunscreen that sailors should need: waterproof, sweat-resistant sunscreens ranging in SPF from 6 to 30. We tried a couple of the new sprays, and one sunscreen that claimed to be bug repellent. There were no disappointments, and not much difference in terms of water resistance. Here are the contenders.

The Body Shop Sun Block
We tested Body Shopís Sun Spray Lotion (SPF 6), Sun Lotion (SPF 8 and 15) and Sun Block (SPF 25). All are waterproof and stand up well to physical activity. Itís a thicker lotion than some, but once itís been completely rubbed in, it calls little attention to itself, aside from a very slight slippery feel until you wash it off. It contains ginkgo and green tea and vitamin E for their antioxidants, which are supposed to slow the effects of aging, and for moisture retention. Its smell is subtle and not unpleasant.

Though you canít know if you will have an allergic reaction to a sunscreen until you test a small patch of skin, a runner with sensitive skin claims Body Shop is one of the few sunscreens she can use.

The Body Shop Products are priced at $8.50 and $9.50 for 5.2 fluid ounces (thatís $1.36 and and $1.84 per ounce respectively). We didnít notice any better performance in terms of burn protection than with the less expensive products, so it looks like youíre paying nearly twice what you have to for that ginkgo and green tea. If other sunscreens irritate your skin or you are concerned about wrinkles, Body Shop products are worth a look. Otherwise, you can get sun protection for much less.

No-Ad Ultra Sunblock (SPF 30)
If youíre looking for economy, this oneís for you. At $2.79 for 3 fluid ounces, thatís 93Ę an ounce. Like all of the sunscreens, itís waterproof, sweatproof, and PABA-free, but you sacrifice the little luxuries. For one thing, the smell is a bit on the chemical side, and though the lotion isnít as thick as the Body Shop lotions, it takes some time to rub it in. We found that this lotion stung slightly (similar to a slight sunburn), a sensation that lasted for about 20 minutes. It wasnít painful, and might even be tolerated without much notice, although someone with sensitive skin will definitely want to test a patch of skin before using. It contains cocoa butter, vitamin E, and aloe vera for their moisturizing qualities. The packaging recommends waiting 30 minutes before going out in the sun. If you can handle the smell (which does fade after about 30 minutes), itís a good buy.

Nantucket Gold
Nantucket Gold Sea Mist Spray Lotion, Block Island Sport (SPF 15), and All Sports (SPF 30). Again, nothing to complain about with these products. They are waterproof and sweatproof, and PABA-free. Theyíre a little less noticeable on the skin, and they rub in fairly easily. Unlike Body Shop products, if you get it on your clothes, you can rub it off (in?) so that it doesnít mark them. The Sea Mist Spray is a good choice for those people who would rather be out in the sun than spending time preparing for it. If you know you wonít spend time slathering lotion on yourself, using the spray might be more to your liking. The pump is much nicer than the Body Shop sprayóit distributes more easily and seems to spray out more product. The instructions say to apply the lotion 10 minutes before going out in the sun, the spray 15 minutes. At $1.16 per ounce for the lotion and $.93 for the spray, these products, which are claimed to be hypoallergenic, are worth a try for anyone who finds the No-Ad irritating.

Off Skintastic Insect Repellent and Sunscreen
At $1.83 per fluid ounce, you wonít want this unless you need the bug repellent as well. If you do need bug juice, this is probably a good choice. A recent study has found that insect repellents containing DEET can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen. Combination insect repellent and sunscreen products werenít included in the study, but we didnít notice any difference in performance between this and the other SPF 30 products. It smells God-awful, just like bug repellentóbig surprise, right? But thatís the price of no mosquito bites.

Nauti-Care Naturals
We first tested Nauti-Careís line of sunscreens, moisturers and lip balms several years ago and thought highly of them. All are PABA-free, hypoallergenic and non-greasy. They block UVA and UVB. Sun Survival SPF 15 sunscreen contains aloe vera and moisturizing emollients. No animal byproducts are used.

Since our last report, founder Michael Brown has sold the company to Ed van Rossum, a former vice-president at Azko Nobel, maker of Sikkens Cetol teak treatments. Rossum markets Nauti-Care products only through boating and outdoor stores.

A six-piece Sun Survival Pac is available in a yellow canvas bag for $53.99. Nauti-Care prices arenít cheap, but they are good quality; we especially like the fact that they are not greasy.

Bottom Line
Thereís so little difference in sunscreens, and so much regulation of what they put on their packages, chances are you wonít get, um. . . burned by a bad product. Just be sure to check the active ingredients for protection against UVA and UVB. Provided you have no special needs (sensitive skin, sensitive nose), the No-Ad looks like a good bet. Otherwise, Nauti-Care and Nantucket Gold are likely to work for you.


Contacts- The Body Shop, 5036 One World Way, Wake Forest, NC 27587; 919/554-4900. Nantucket Gold, 254 Hornbine Rd., Rehoboth, MA 02769; 508/679-1941. Nauti-Care, PO Box 636, Severna Park, MD 21146; 800/262-0202. No-Ad, Solar Sun Care, 4920 NW 165th St., Miami, FL 33014; 305/621-5551. Off Skintastic, S.C. Johnson & Son, 1525 Howe St., Racine, WI 53403; 800/558-5252.

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