I get it. Consumer Reports is widely respected and well-known for really knowing how to do reviews and being very thorough. I’m just a mom who has spent the last nearly-decade testing over 100 natural sunscreens on her family in a mostly organized but sometimes haphazard way.
I don’t have a testing lab.
I don’t have a team of researchers.
I don’t even have perfect documentation on everything I did.
But I am still going to shout my disagreement with Consumer Reports’ last few years of sunscreen reviews from the rooftops until someone listens!
What Consumer Reports Says About Natural Sunscreen
In a summer 2017 series of articles, Consumer Reports specifically told people NOT to use mineral sunscreen because they’re not effective!
Because “nearly half of the 1,000 sunscreen users surveyed said they look for a ‘natural’ product when shopping for sunscreen” in 2016, CR decided that they’d review more mineral options in 2017.
Hooray for the people! So many are trying to make good decisions!
But oh, poor people – it’s such a confusing world out there when people are trying to be “natural.” I’m guessing more than half of those well-meaning people ended up buying a sunscreen filled with petrochemical active ingredients because of greenwashed label sounding safer than the other options on the shelf. (The other half probably listened to something like Consumer Reports and got scared!)
For example, in a massive center aisle kiosk at our local big box store, there was ONE brand that even tried to be natural, and guess what? Of the 3 varieties offered, only ONE of those had mineral ingredients; the others were chemically-reacting actives anyway!
READ MORE: Safe Sunscreen Ingredients
See? Can you tell which of these you should actually buy?
What’s a well-meaning mama to do to find the best, safe sunscreen for their babies?
Consumer Reports Does Great Lab Testing
Consumer Reports does do great work in independently testing the efficacy of over 70 sunscreens each summer. Alarmingly, their testing, which mirrors the FDA requirements (but not precisely), finds that nearly half of the sunscreens do not live up to the SPF claims, one-third falling at less than half of the labeled number. (source)
This is important news, because of course people want to know that the sunscreen they are spending money on actually works.
However, the rest of their recommendations I could do without. CBS news, WebMD, the Today Show, Good Morning America… They all cover Consumer Reports’ recommendations. This is a great boost to certain brands, but every year CR downplays the importance of safety for humans and the environment.
This year, as Hawaii works to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate, CR knew that it would be remiss in not mentioning those ingredients. So how did they handle it? They basically said the mineral ones just don’t work, there is no research showing that they are effective (except there is), but if you really care about that stuff, fine, do what’s right for your environment but the rest of us will just ravage our natural resources and not care one bit.
I’m putting words in CR’s collective mouth a bit, but they continue to put real weight behind finding the right mineral sunscreens to test, in my opinion. Many in the comments on their 2018 sunscreen recommendations are asking for mineral sunscreens to have their own list, just so people can at least find out the best of that category. I’d be all for that!
2021 Update: Hawaii Bans Sunscreen Ingredients
But the Other Ingredients Don’t Seem to Matter
I checked out the ingredients lists of many of Consumer Reports’ top 13 recommended sunscreens for this year. Of course, they all include oxybenzone, which is incredibly toxic to coral reefs and also disrupts human’s hormones. But that’s okay, infertility is no big deal…
I was also alarmed to see parabens in some of the formulas, a compound I have been avoiding for over a decade, and it’s much more mainstream that they are proven endocrine disruptors. But again, sperm count decreasing 50% in the last few decades is of no concern as long as our skin doesn’t burn and everything is convenient and inexpensive…
Avobenzone is the only chemical active ingredient that is rated for UVA protection, which means that every tube of sunscreen that doesn’t contain zinc oxide definitely has avobenzone in it. CR only allowed sunscreens in their top recommendations that tested well against UVA radiation, which means 100% of their chosen brands contain avobenzone.
Guess what? Avobenzone causes terrible orange stains on clothing unless it’s washed off with soap before getting dressed! How is that going to work for people who are outside wearing collared shirts, etc? Save a buck on sunscreen, lose money buying new clothes all the time.
One of the recommendations, Coppertone Sport Stick, even, shockingly, included vitamin A in the form of Retinyl Palmitate. This compound is well known to react negatively with the sun, and it has absolutely no place in any sun protection formula. Pregnant women are recommended to not use lotions with this substance, and yet, do you really think that every news outlet sharing these top five recommendations reminded pregnant women to be careful?
I doubt it. That’s one reason why I never allow that ingredient in any of my top recommendations, or even second tier recommendations. I want to keep people safe, outside and inside.
Of the hundreds of natural sunscreens now on the market, Consumer Reports tested 15 in 2017 (compared to my 100, thank you), and they reported:
- Five rated “Excellent” (the highest) for UVA protection.
- Only 2 tested at at least 85% of the SPF listed on their labels.
- Their top mineral sunscreen, although still only 47 points out of 100, was California Kids Supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+ (same in 2018, scoring a 55, but still not recommended).
- They fail to point out in articles that Badger Active Unscented Cream SPF 30 was only one point lower on their scale and MUCH better UVA protection. (I know this because I subscribed so that I could view all the details.)
In 2018, they simply stated: “None of the mineral sunscreens in our tests this year did well enough to make our list of recommendations.”
There’s plenty more that they didn’t highlight, like the fact that most of the “chemical” sunscreens also test far lower than the package SPF claims.
Although Consumer Reports’ testing is at face value much more scientific and rigorous than what I’ve done, we really need to team up here! I could have told them before they started that they were testing the wrong set of 15 sunscreens…
What Consumer Reports did WRONG
Although back in 2010 I only had about 42 natural sunscreens to choose from that the EWG rated as very safe, there are now many hundreds. Consumer Reports must have used some system to decide which ones to test, but they don’t explain that in any of their articles or reports.
They should have let me look at the ingredients first.
1. CR Chose Poor Samples
For example, one of their “natural” screens tested in 2017 that does use good mineral active ingredients also has two PARABENS in the ingredients, stuff I don’t touch with a 10-foot pole! If a company making “natural” sunscreen (Fallene Cotz) doesn’t care enough about their customers to avoid parabens, I don’t trust them to do much else right either.
Consumer Reports also chose the majority of their mineral sunscreens for testing that were SPF 50 and of course they’re not living up to that claim! Whenever I see SPF 50, my guard is immediately up. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide based sunscreens rarely hit 50, and if they do, they’re pasty white, or they utilize nano particles which is another story altogether. (None of my top recommended sunscreens use nanos!)
The problem isn’t in the mineral sunscreen, it’s in the way those particular brands are choosing to market their wares. SPF 50 is too high for the actives to live up to. I’d rather have a great 30 SPF that won’t cause cancer and tests at 27 SPF or something that an attempt at SPF 50 that tests at 35 and gets horrible CR ratings!
2. CR Tested Water Resistance, NOT SPF!
If you read how Consumer Reports tested the sunscreen samples, every sunscreen had to endure the maximum amount claimed in water (40 or 80 minutes) before being tested for UVB protection.
“To check for UVB protection, a standard amount of each sunscreen is applied to six places on our panelists’ backs. Then they soak in a tub of water. Afterward, each of those areas is exposed to six intensities of UVB light from a sun simulator for a set time. About a day later, the six spots are examined for redness. The resulting UVB protection ratings reflect each product’s actual effectiveness after water immersion and are based on an average of our results for each sunscreen.”
They never tested for SPF before putting their human subjects in water, which means that we have no way of knowing whether a cream might give awesome protection but just not live up to its water resistance claim perfectly.
Granted, water resistance is super important much of the time, and I put a lot of weight on that too, BUT it would be nice to test overall protection without having that variable potentially interfere with the other data.
3. CR May Not Put Enough Weight on UVA Protection
UVA protection was tested without human skin or water involved. It takes a special machine, and it is NOT something we regular human beings can test at home.
UVA rays are not the ones that cause sunburn, but the ones that cause cancer and skin aging (UVB rays cause cancer too though).
There’s a great graphic at the bottom here that shows that zinc oxide actually is the only single ingredient out there that protects from UVB and both kinds of UVA rays, and this study from 2010 states unequivocally, “Only two sunscreen active ingredients approved in the US, avobenzone and zinc oxide, provide true broad-spectrum protection against UVA wavelengths.”
All 5 of the tested sunscreens that use zinc oxide only rated Excellent on the UVA ratings for Consumer Reports (2017).
As I would expect, every other sunscreen that tested well for UVA protection used avobenzone, which not only breaks down in the sunshine after 2 hours so you’re not protected at all anymore but stains clothing, as I mentioned above. This is far from consumer friendly.
We can totally rate UVB protection for ourselves:
- Are you burning with a lotion? It’s not working for you the way you’re applying it.
- Are you protected from burns? Then the UVB protection is sufficient for you, don’t you think?
Plus, get this – the EWG reports that some of the chemical actives, including oxybenzone, may simply be “treating” redness from the sun as an anti-inflammatory, but not actually protecting the skin from other harmful effects of UVB rays! That means CR’s testing, looking visually at the amount of redness on a test subject’s skin, may be confounded by these ingredients masquerading as helpful. Good grief.
4. CR Put Too Much Emphasis on High SPFs
Each Consumer Report “score” was tallied using 3 figures:
- UVA Protection
- UVB (SPF) Protection
- Variation from SPF (as claimed on the packaging)
Ratings are as follows:
And then some sort of point system ensues from that.
Here’s the thing:
Every single SPF 30 sunscreen tested, mineral or petrochemical actives, could not get an “Excellent” on UVB rating, the middle column. Even quite a handful that tested just as they should (i.e. “Excellent” in column 3, “Variation from SPF,”) only get a “Good” or “Very Good” in the middle UVB/SPF column.
One example of many:
And an SPF 70 that lost points for NOT being accurately labeled for SPF (meaning it rated lower on the test) still got an “Excellent” on UVB/SPF rating (middle column).
Reverse engineering CR’s metrics tells me that they weighted SPF 50 as more valuable than 30 by quite a bit.
Is it worth it? Research tells us that “SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent and SPF 50 keeps out 98 percent” of the UVB rays from our skin. (sources: skincancer.org and The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology)
The EWG lists a multitude of problems with SPFs over 50, including:
- SPFs over 50 give so little additional protection, it really is silly.
- It’s also misleading to consumers, who generally feel that they can stay out longer in the sun with a higher SPF.
- Minute variation in application can intensely change SPF in testing (since the percentage of UVB rays that get through only increases by about 1% from SPF 50 to 100)
- The balance of UVA to UVB protection is skewed in higher SPFs, since UVA protection must rate at 33% of labeled UVB SPF.
Thanks, Consumer Reports, for helping us all be “silly” with our sun safety.
5. CR’s Top Sunscreens May Put YOU at Risk
This is beyond silly.
Every single one of Consumer Reports’ 15 “top recommendations” (except one) is a risk sandwich of avobenzone (which will ruin your clothes but was at least previously thought to be relatively safe; new research is coming out to the contrary!) and oxybenzone (the worst ingredient in sunscreens that is a massive hormone disruptor and environmentally persistent probably lowers thyroid hormone). Katie heaves a heavy, heavy sigh.
Is that really worth getting an extra percent protection from the sun?
CR’s evaluation of health and safety hits some marks and misses others in my opinion. This is their evaluation of “what’s in sunscreen” (2017):
“Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., and the benefits of sunscreens outweigh potential risks from their ingredients. That said, animal studies have raised some concerns about what’s inside these sunscreens.
Some chemical UV filters, such as octinoxate and oxybenzone, have been found to cause hormonal changes in animals; however, short-term research in people did not show any adverse effect. And one large animal study found that the inactive ingredient retinyl palmitate, one of a group of chemical compounds related to vitamin A called retinoids, may become carcinogenic when exposed to light. But that hasn’t been studied in people. Taking pills that contain a different type of retinoid for skin conditions such as acne has been linked to birth defects. As a precaution, pregnant women may want to choose a sunscreen without the ingredient retinol palmitate or retinyl palmitate.”
Apparently since these compounds haven’t actually been proven to harm humans, we can all be the guinea pigs in a grand experiment. #notmykids
At least CR has some wise words about spray sunscreens:
“The FDA has said it is exploring the risks of inhaling spray sunscreens. Until we know more, our experts say to avoid using sprays on children, and do not spray them directly on your face. Instead, spray sunscreen onto your hands then apply it to your face. If you do use a spray on a child, spray the sunscreen into your hands and rub it onto the child’s skin. Sprays are flammable, so let them dry before going near an open flame.”
Notice that they recommend not to use on kids! They also explain in another section that you’re actually supposed to rub in any spray sunscreen for it to be as effective as the bottle claims. This pretty much negates all the reasons parents like sprays.
Ditch them, people! Read more on spray sunscreens from Kitchen Stewardship®.
What Mineral Sunscreens Did Consumer Reports (sort of) Recommend?
The mineral sunscreens were at a disadvantage from the start with double points given for UVB protection over UVA and the fact that a good mineral sunscreen rarely goes over 30 SPF.
But two sunscreens that I’ve tested were the top two mineral options in 2017, at least!
These top two mineral ‘screens scored 47 and 46 out of 100. (All actual top recommendations are over 75.)
California Kids SPF 30 rates “fair” on UVA protection (the orange arrow) which makes sense because it only includes titanium dioxide, which is not as strong of a broad spectrum protector than zinc oxide. SPF/UVB protection was “very good” (the light green arrow) and “variation from SPF” was excellent, the highest rating, which meant that the product came pretty close to its SPF 30 claim, by percentage.
Badger active unscented cream is one of my top recommended brands and only 1 point below California Kids.
Its UVA protection is excellent (round of applause for zinc oxide!), but UVB protection and variation from SPF are both fair. Hmph.
They also tested Badger Sport Cream SPF 35 and found UVA protection to be excellent and UVB and variation from SPF as “poor.” I’m not surprised that if Badger is trying to raise the SPF that the variation percentage is going to be higher. I’m concerned that the UVB protection is rated so poorly BUT here’s the thing: What I’m taking from this lab testing is to celebrate the fact that zinc oxide in Badger (and actually every single zinc-only product tested) rates very high in UVA protection, which is something you and I absolutely cannot know from personal experience. Hip hip, hooray!!
If you had a little sticker shock comparing Walmart’s cost per ounce to the mineral versions, keep in mind that there are frugal options when it comes to natural sunscreen.
I’ll help you out:
Too much to look through right now?
I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!
The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:
- Which brand rubs in the clearest?
- What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
- How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
- What looks good on ladies’ faces?
- Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?
I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!