Hiking, camping, watching a baseball game—chances are your perfect summer day involves spending time outside. Just don’t forget to bring along the sunscreen and insect repellent.
Sunburns and insect bites are more than just short-term discomforts. Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause wrinkles and skin cancer, and mosquitoes and ticks can transmit serious diseases such as the West Nile virus and Lyme. But CR’s tests of dozens of sunscreens and insect repellents have found effective options to keep you safe outside. These tips will help you use them the right way all season long.
Many people turn to “natural” sunscreens and insect repellents because they’re concerned about the harmful effects of chemicals such as avobenzone or oxybenzone in sunscreens and deet in insect repellents. But the products made with chemical ingredients—as opposed to “mineral” sunscreens and insect repellents made with essential oils—have been found to offer the best protection year after year in CR’s tests.
For sunscreen: All our top-rated sunscreens have chemical active ingredients. While it’s true that these chemicals have been shown to be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, experts at the Food and Drug Administration (which oversees sunscreens) have said that the fact that a substance is absorbed doesn’t automatically make it unsafe. And CR’s experts—and others—still recommend using those sunscreens. “Chemical UV filters are highly effective ingredients that have been used safely for years,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. (Some people may want to avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate. These chemical active ingredients may possibly harm oceans, and some evidence suggests that oxybenzone may interfere with hormones in the body.)
The alternative, mineral-based sunscreens—those with only titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both as active ingredients—for the most part have received scores of Fair or Poor for overall protection against UV skin damage in our testing. If you choose to use a mineral sunscreen, California Kids #supersensitive Tinted Lotion SPF 30+ and Badger Active Natural Mineral Cream SPF 30 Unscented are your best bets.
For insect repellent: Deet-containing products consistently top our ratings. “Deet has been around for a long time and has a very good safety profile,” says David Brown, technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association. If you still would rather not use it, choose a product with oil of lemon eucalyptus (such as Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent2 Pump) or picaridin (such as Sawyer Premium Insect Repellent Pump) that did well in our ratings. Skip the ones made with essential oils.
Be Smart About Sprays
Never spray in an enclosed area or near food, and stay away from open flames (like a grill), because aerosol sprays can be flammable. Avoid getting the spray into your mouth, nose, or eyes, and never spray directly into your face. For children, it’s best to spray the product onto your hands and then rub it in. At the very least, have them close their mouth and eyes, and turn their head.
For sunscreen: Sprays are great for hard-to-reach spots—such as the scalp, back of the neck and shoulders, and tops of feet. In general, more is better. “Spray until skin glistens,” Zeichner says, then rub in evenly.
For insect repellent: A light spritz—from 6 to 8 inches away—is enough.
Dress for Success
Clothing can also help protect you against UV rays and biting bugs.
Do this with sunscreen: Cover up with clothing and a broad-brimmed hat.
Do this with insect repellent: Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants; light colors make it easier to spot ticks. When you’re in wooded or grassy areas, tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks to help keep ticks from reaching your skin.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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