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Sunscreen Use: Surprising Statistics

27% of kids under 12 not protected


Thirty-one percent of Americans polled by the Consumer Reports National Research Center said they never wear sunscreen. But consumers aren't oblivious to the sun's risks: 22 percent of those polled said they'd been examined by a doctor for something they thought might be skin cancer. The July issue of Consumer Reports rates ten top selling sunscreens to slather on, noting that there's plenty of variation among the brands tested. Consumers should choose carefully. The report will be available online at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.

  • 45  percent of sunscreen users said they were "especially bothered" by getting sunscreen in their eyes
  • 41 percent were bothered by sand sticking to their skin.
  • Another issue was cost, which 40 percent of respondents cited as bothersome.
  • About one third of respondents were bothered by stains and smells that wouldn't wash out and not being able to wash sunscreen off their hands.
"But with the official launch of summer [upon us] consumers should make sure they don't forget sunscreen. There are plenty of options-creams, lotions, different scents-to suit every preference,"said Jamie Hirsh, associate editor, Consumer Reports. Forty-eight percent of sunscreen users who'd had a sunburn in the past two years said it happened during their first time out in the sun after months of little to no sun.

Other Survey Highlights

  • While the likelihood that both men and women wearing sunscreen seems to increase the longer they plan to be in the sun, women are significantly more likely to be frequent sunscreen users. When planning to spend 2 to 4 hours in the sun, 48 percent of women versus 27 percent of men are likely to wear sunscreen.
  • Twenty-seven percent of parents with kids under twelve years old say they never or only sometimes apply sunscreen on their kids when they're outside for 2 to 4 hours. And 14 percent say they don't even apply sunscreen on their kids when they're outside for more than four hours.
  • Only one-third of sunscreen users are brand-loyal when it comes to sunscreens. Thirty-three percent like a particular brand and tend to stick with it, while 62 percent say they use "whatever they have."
  • Twenty-two percent of respondents say they've been examined by a doctor for something they thought might be skin cancer. And 14 percent said they'd been told by a doctor they were at risk of skin cancer.

Best Sunscreens, Plus Tips for Sunscreen Use

Consumer Reports assessed each sunscreen's ability to protect against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation. Many products now claim protection against both, though SPF accounts for ultraviolet B rays only. CR's tests also measured the sunscreens' protection after volunteers soaked in a tub for at least 40 minutes.

Consumer Reports found that most sunscreens protected well, identifying three Consumer Reports Best Buys: Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport SPF 50; Coppertone Water Babies SPF 50 (lotion); and Target Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30, whose brand name has since changed to Up & Up. Consumer Reports notes that spray sunscreens can be tricky to apply if it's windy.

Consumer Reports recommends the following tips for sunscreen use:

  • Consumers should pay attention to the expiration dates on their sunscreens. If their sunscreen lists no expiration date, they should write the purchase date on the bottle with a marker. Discard a sunscreen that's more than two years old.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to allow for absorption.
  • Don't rely on sunscreen alone to protect your skin. Wear tightly woven clothing and a broad-brimmed hat, limit sun time, and seek shade during the hottest hours of the day.
  • Don't make purchases based on brand alone. Past tests have shown that different formulas or SPFs within the same brand may not rate the same.
  • Look to Consumer Reports' sunscreen Ratings for excellent or very good choices. High-rated products from Consumer Reports' 2007 tests that are still available include Blue Lizard Regular Australian SPF 30+, Mustela Bébé/Enfant High Protection SPF 50, Lancôme Paris Sôleil Ultra Expert Sun Care for Sensitive Skin SPF 50, and Fallene Cotz SPF 58. These sunscreens are more expensive on average than the current batch, which includes only drugstore-available brands.

Concerns About Ingredient Safety

Consumer Reports notes that nanoparticles, manufactured microscopic materials that might behave differently from regular-sized particles, are sometimes used in sunscreens. Scientific studies have raised concerns about the adverse potential effects of nanoscale ingredients in sunscreens and other products on human health.

In sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both mineral-based, are often used nano-sized, in part to make them look clearer on the skin. Manufacturers aren't required to disclose the use of nanoparticles, but if a sunscreen ingredient label mentions either of those minerals, it could mean the presence of nanoparticles. More information about nanotechnology can be found at www.ConsumerReportsHealth.org.

Poll Methodology

The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted a telephone survey of a nationally representative probability sample of telephone households. A total of 1,000 interviews were completed among adults ages 18+ and interviewing took place April 9th to April 13th, 2009. The margin of error is +/-3 % points.

May 20, 2015 UPDATE: A new study by the Centers for Disease Control published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported that only 14.3 percent of men and 29.9 percent of women said that they regularly use sunscreen on both their face and other exposed skin, with men more likely than women to never use sunscreen, with 43.8 percent of men (compared to 27 percent of women) saying they never use sunscreen on their face and 42.1 percent of men (compared to 26.8 percent of women) saying they never use it on other exposed skin.  

Sources: Consumer Reports; American Academy of Dermatology