Most sunscreens contain possible harmful ingredients or don’t protect well from the sun, consumer group analysis shows
Researchers from the Environmental Working Group found that two-thirds of sunscreen products it analyzed offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients, such as oxybenzone.
On Wednesday, the EWG released its 13th Annual Guide to Sunscreens, which rates the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,300 SPF products, including sunscreens, daily moisturizers, and lip balms with SPF values. SPF means sun protection factor.
In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a proposal for updated sunscreen regulations. It’s a big step toward cleaning up a poorly regulated industry, with much-needed reforms that would better protect public health, said Nneka Leiba, director of the EWG’s Healthy Living Science program. Only 40 percent of the products on the EWG’s list contain active ingredients that the FDA has proposed are safe and effective, based on the agency’s new draft rules, according to the EWG’s assessment.
“The good news is that the FDA has reaffirmed what EWG has advocated for 13 years: Based on the best current science, the safest and most effective sunscreen active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” said Leiba. “It’s long past time that the chemicals used in sunscreens were tested to show that they will not harm our health.”
EWG researchers found more than 260 sunscreens that meet its criteria for safety and effectiveness and would likely meet the proposed FDA standards. Even the biggest brands now provide mineral options for consumers.
Research shows that oxybenzone is an allergen that is absorbed by the skin and can be detected in the bodies of nearly every American. It’s also a potential hormone disruptor that’s still used in 60 percent of non-mineral sunscreens. Earlier this month, the FDA published a peer-reviewed study in the journal JAMA, which found that several active ingredients, including oxybenzone, enter the bloodstream at levels that far exceed the agency’s recommended threshold for requiring additional safety tests. Another study showed American adolescent boys with higher concentrations of oxybenzone in their bodies had lower levels of testosterone.
High SPF values
Products with claims of high SPF values are on the rise and misleading, she said. A sunscreen with high SPF values may help prevent sunburn, but it might not adequately shield skin from the harmful ultraviolet A rays that cause skin aging and possibly melanoma. The SPF value on product labels is only for UVB protection.
High SPF products also provide a false sense of security and encourage people to prolong their time in the sun, exposing themselves to more, not fewer, ultraviolet rays, according to the FDA. SPF values of more than 50+ can mislead people into thinking they’re completely protected from sunburn and long-term skin damage.
“Our understanding of the dangers associated with UVA exposure is increasing and of great concern,” said Leiba. “It is critical for a sunscreen to provide balanced, broad-spectrum protection. Products with zinc oxide especially protect well against harmful UVA and UVB rays.”
“Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to sun damage,” said Carla Burns, a research analyst at the EWG. “Just one blistering sunburn early in life can double the risk of a person developing melanoma later in life. A good SPF product is one you’re going to use every day and reapply at least every two hours.”
This year’s Guide to Sunscreens includes a list of the best-rated sunscreens for kids.
The FDA has finally acknowledged that the standards it uses to evaluate sunscreen products need to be updated, Leiba said. The EWG supports the strong language in the agency’s proposed sunscreen rules because it will best protect public health. The agency is required to finalize its sunscreen requirements by the end of the year.
Although wearing sunscreen is important, it’s only one part of a sun safety routine. People should also protect their skin by choosing clothes, hats, and sunglasses with coverage, staying in the shade, and avoiding the peak midday sun.
EWG’s guide helps consumers find products that get high ratings for providing broad-spectrum protection and that are made with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns, she said.
Sunscreen selection tips
- Check your products in the EWG’s sunscreen database and avoid those with harmful additives.
- Avoid products with oxybenzone. This chemical penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and affects normal hormone activities.
- Steer clear of products with SPF higher than 50+. High SPF values don’t necessarily provide increased UVA protection and may fool you into thinking you’re safe from sun damage.
- Avoid sprays. These products pose inhalation concerns.
- Stay away from retinyl palmitate. Government studies link the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when it’s applied to sun-exposed skin.
Shoppers can download EWG’s Healthy Living app to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. For information on what sunscreen labels really mean, see EWG’s sunscreen label decoder.