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When it comes to skin cancer, I’m a skinflint.
I was first diagnosed with melanoma when I was a teenager. I lost part of my left ear to the disease. Since then, with what’s left of both ears, I’ve listened intently to my doctors and the experts about how to avoid this too common – and too often deadly – form of skin cancer.
But on my own, I’ve learned how to save money while saving my skin. And now it turns out my instincts were correct: The cheapest sunscreens are also among the best, according to Consumer Reports.
Here’s what Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has learned from board-certified dermatologists and a new sunscreen study. Check it out and read on for the money-saving details.
There are different kinds of skin cancer, but the deadliest is melanoma, which can start off as a harmless-looking dark mole. (That’s how it started for me.) This year the National Cancer Institute predicts nearly 10,000 Americans will die from the disease.
Melanoma thrives on sunlight, so the cheapest way to avoid it is to stay indoors. “The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” says the Melanoma Research Foundation. “Use extra caution near water, snow and sand, as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn.”
Of course, staying out of the sun isn’t always an option. Nor is it fun. Hence, sunscreen.
Consumer Reports conducted a comprehensive sunscreen study for its July issue. The big takeaway: “Paying more may not buy more protection. The least effective sunscreens were among the priciest.”
Here’s what you need to know:
SPF is more than a number
Most of us know to apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before we go outside and to reapply every two hours if we remain outdoors.
In the store, we look at the SPF on the sunscreen label, even if we don’t really know what it means. (It’s short for “sun protection factor,” which measures how much protection you get against the sun’s ultraviolet B radiation.)
Common wisdom is, the higher the SPF number, the better the protection. But that’s not always true.
“You can’t always rely on the SPF number,” Consumer Reports says. “Our tests this year found a bigger gap between many products’ claimed SPF values and their measured SPF values than we’ve found in the past.”
Besides the SPF number, you also have to consider a couple of letters: A and B. Those are the two kinds of ultraviolet light that can cause skin damage. Look for “broad spectrum” coverage — “sunscreen that protects against all types of skin damage caused by sunlight,” says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
And while the FDA recommends an SPF “of 15 or more,” it’s best to go for 50 or higher, the American Academy of Dermatology suggests.
Watch where you spray
The FDA warns about spray sunscreens, and it’s studying whether inhaling the mist is dangerous. But for now, experts say to avoid spraying sunscreen on your face. Instead, spray it on your hands and rub it on your face.
There’s another reason to avoid spray sunscreens: Those spray bottles don’t last very long when most of it is dispersing into the air.
Speaking of application, how much is enough? The AAD says, “Most people only apply 25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.” It has an easy-to-remember formula I’ve been following for years. You should use at least “one ounce, enough to fill a shot glass” to cover the exposed areas of the body. The important words are at least.
Getting more slather for your dollar
Why the bigger discrepancy between claimed and measured SPF values? “It’s hard to explain the changes,” Consumer Reports admits, but it guesses that manufacturers “tweak ingredients.” That means your favorite sunscreen may be less effective this year than last, or perhaps more effective than it used to be.
This year, Consumer Reports’ review of 12 sunscreens found the best value to be a Target store brand called Up & Up Sport SPF 50, a spray costing just $1.16 an ounce. Second on the list of recommended sunscreens was also the cheapest — Walmart’s Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 lotion at only 47 cents an ounce.
Me? I plan to buy both and compare.