Consumers Often Choose Sunscreens Which Fall Short of Dermatology Association Guidelines, Study Finds

Many sunscreens studied lacked water-sweat resistance, according to researchers.

ByABC News
July 6, 2016, 6:02 PM

— -- If you're heading out soon to get some sun, you probably know to pack sunblock. But a new study finds that consumers don’t always choose the most effective sunscreens.

Many sunscreens that consumers give high marks to do not adhere to the guidelines set by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association found.

Researchers from multiple institutions, including Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, looked at the top-rated one percent of sunscreens on Amazon to see whether people are picking the sunscreens that provide the best protection. Researchers picked the sunscreens that had both the highest ratings and highest number of reviews by consumers on Amazon.

What they discovered was that many people select sunblocks that fall short of the recommended protections set by the AAD.

Researchers examined how many of the 65 unnamed sunscreens studied actually adhered to all of the recommended guidelines. These guidelines include "sun protection factor," or SPF, greater than or equal to 30, protection from both UVA and UVB light, and water and sweat resistance. They found that about 40 percent did not fully adhere to criteria set out by the AAD. The majority of those which did not meet those criteria fell short of the guidelines because they were not water- or sweat- resistant.

Researchers also found that consumers were most apt to cite “cosmetic elegance” –- how the product feels, smells or its color -- in their reviews as a positive feature of a sunscreen. Product performance was the second most mentioned theme.

“Dermatologists should counsel patients that sunscreen products come with numerous marketing claims and varying cosmetic applicability, all of which must be balanced with adequate photo protection,” the study authors wrote.

As for the study itself, limitations included the fact that researchers considered only a small portion of available sunscreens, and only from Amazon, as opposed to a variety of retail outlets. Also, the sunscreens chosen for this study were not necessarily the best sellers among the general population.

But Dr. Elma Baron, director of the Skin Studies Center at the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said she wasn't surprised by the findings. Baron, who was not connected to the study, said consumers should always focus on the performance of the sunscreen over cosmetic features. However, she said it was also important for consumers to like their sunblock so they will be more inclined to apply it when heading outdoors.

"I do know there's so much newer technology around and, compared to even 10 years ago, I think we have sunscreens that are way better both in performance and in the way they look on the skin and the way we use them," Baron said.

Dr. Barney Kenet, a Manhattan-based dermatologist, said that some of the popular sunblocks may be used on a daily basis when people are going to work, for instance, though they may not need water-resistant formulas in that case.

He said the study showed how doctors and the medical community can persuade patients to wear sunblock on a daily basis by taking into account consumers’ desire for "cosmetic elegance" in their products.

"You've got to work with people, you can’t ask them to do something uncomfortable," Kenet said. "Doctors shouldn't be too dogmatic. When you push advice on people it's generally not followed so well."

Focusing on the issue of water-resistant products, the Personal Care Products Council, a national trade association representing the cosmetic and personal care products industry, said many sunscreens do not need that feature if users are not going to be active outdoors or enter the water.

"Many consumers looking for a daily-use product may prefer sunscreens without this attribute, and it is not critical for the sunscreen to be effective,” the group said in a statement today. “We believe that consumer choice is critical in the variety of sunscreens, as this helps assure that these products will be used."

"Consumers should not take these results to mean products are not effective as claimed; water resistance is an important benefit for sport or beach products to maintain protection during sweating or water activities.”