A new report suggests that many -- if not most -- sunscreens do not do an adequate job of protecting users from the sun's harmful rays.
But medical experts are quick to caution that consumers would not be wise to eliminate the use of sunscreen from their summertime ritual, because that could expose them to an increased risk of skin cancer.
In its new report, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group says that 85 percent of sunscreens either inadequately protect from the sun's rays or contain ingredients that may be unsafe.
They say that the problem is worsened by the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has not passed standards for testing and labeling sunscreens -- meaning that makers often have carte blanche when it comes to making claims about their products.
"There are all these things on the label that don't indicate quality, protection and safety," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at EWG and manager of the project.
However, the group does recommend 142 sunscreen products for use by customers. While a similar report last year listed several recommended brands that were expensive and only available online, this year's report includes a list of the top 10 recommended brands that are widely available, including picks from CVS and Walgreens.
"Now you can walk down to the drugstore and pick one up," Lunder says.
The caveat is that only one of the 144 products sold by the top three sunscreen makers -- Coppertone, Neutrogena and Banana Boat -- made the list of recommended products.
Schering-Plough Corporation, which manufactures Coppertone products, rejects the report, saying that the company rigorously tests its sunscreen products for safety and effectiveness.
"Coppertone is committed to the science and safety of suncare and is concerned about the impact that reports like the one released by the Environmental Working Group will have on individuals who wish to protect themselves from the sun," said Schering-Plough spokesperson Julie Lux in a statement.
Researchers looked at the ingredients of 950 name-brand sunscreens for the report. They based their analysis on nearly 400 published studies and nearly 60 national databases containing information about possibly toxic chemicals.
With this information, they rated each sunscreen's overall effectiveness, based on three factors: ultraviolet-B (UVB) protection, indicated by the SPF rating; ultraviolet-A (UVA) protection against the other type of skin cancer-causing rays; and stability of the ingredients, or how long they remain active on the skin.
Dr. Seth Orlow, chairman of the dermatology department at New York University Medical Center, says the general public can make beneficial choices based on these findings.
"It would certainly seem that if someone picked one of the ones that was highly ranked, they would be getting good sun protection," he says. He adds that the worst that could happen is that the ratings could be conservative and cause consumers to be overly cautious.
Doctors say the report should not, however, lead consumers to believe that forgoing sunscreen might be better then wearing a sunscreen that could cause side effects, including allergic reactions.