4 Reasons You’re Paying Too Much for Sunscreen

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Even though dermatologists say we should be slathering the stuff on all year long, summer is when many of us remember we should be using sunscreen. Increased awareness about the danger of skin cancer has made sunscreen a $1.3 billion industry, according to market research company IBISWorld. But it’s also made it easy to convince consumers to spend much more than necessary to protect themselves.

For sunscreen to be effective, experts say, it needs to be applied an ounce at a time and reapplied every two hours or after being in the water. In warm weather, that can mean a lot of sunscreen — but it doesn’t have to mean a huge outlay of cash. Here are the reasons many consumers burn too quickly through their sunscreen budget.

They pick top brands. For its July issue, Consumer Reports magazine studied 12 mass-market sunscreen brands and found out that when it comes to SPF, price doesn’t always equal quality. In fact, the house brands from Target (Up & Up) and Wal-Mart (Equate) topped its list, although they also were the two cheapest evaluated. They lived up to their stated SPF claims, held up to scrutiny when it came to their protection against UVA rays (SPF is just a measure of protection against UVB rays, even though both UVA and UVB rays damage skin) and survived 80 minutes underwater. The underachievers turned out to be the pricey potions: The last two contenders were among the most expensive sunscreens on the list.

They grab the highest SPF on the shelf. Sunscreens with SPF of greater than 50 aren’t significantly more effective, but they are usually more expensive. Save your money: SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, while SPF 50 blocks 98%. Two years ago, the FDA laid out some new regulations pertaining to sunscreen labeling, but it dropped a proposal to cap SPF labeling at 50. Consumer advocacy groups blamed industry influence, noting that the FDA had previously come out against higher SPFs: “There is not sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection for users,” the agency said in 2011.

(MORE: You’ll Be Able to Buy ‘Waterproof Sunblock’ This Summer, Even Though There’s No Such Thing)

They pay extra for certification. As the New York Times‘ health blog Well points out, the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of recommendation is actually a pay-for-play endorsement. “The Seal is a symbol of safe and effective sun protection,” the Skin Cancer Foundation says on its website. But if you go looking a little further, it also says this: “Eligibility for the Seal program is a benefit of membership in our Corporate Council, which carries annual dues of $10,000.” This doesn’t mean you should avoid sunscreens endorsed by the group, but don’t be swayed into paying extra for them.

(MORE: 12 Things You Should Stop Buying Now)

They don’t buy it with pre-tax dollars. Though company benefit plans and insurance companies vary, many allow participants to use pretax FSA contributions to buy sunscreens labeled SPF 30 or higher. Check with your insurer to make sure your purchases qualify, and remember that lower SPF sunscreens and tanning oils don’t count.