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Most sunscreens provide poor protection or contain questionable ingredients, environmental group says

Sunbather-Putting Sunscreen on Her Shoulder Wearing Big Tan Sun HatIf you’re going to leave your home and go outside, remember to protect your skin from the sun’s rays. To help consumers select a sunscreen, the Environmental Working Group has released its 14th annual “Guide to Sunscreens.”

Researchers rated the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,300 SPF products – including sunscreens, moisturizers, and lip balms – and found that only 25 percent offer adequate protection and don’t contain worrisome ingredients such as oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical that’s readily absorbed by the body.

Despite a delay in finalizing rules that would make all sunscreens on U.S. store shelves safer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is completing tests that highlight concerns with common sunscreen ingredients. Last year, the agency published two studies showing that, with just a single application, six chemical active ingredients, including oxybenzone, are readily absorbed through the skin and could be detected in bodies at levels that could cause harm.

“It's quite concerning,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG's vice president of healthy living science. “Those studies don’t prove whether the sunscreens are unsafe, but they do highlight problems with how these products are regulated.

“EWG has been advocating for the FDA to review these chemical ingredients for 14 years,” Leiba said. “We slather these ingredients on our skin, but these chemicals haven't been adequately tested. This is just one example of the backward nature of product regulation in the U.S.”

Oxybenzone remains a commonly used active ingredient, found in more than 40 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in this year’s guide. Oxybenzone is allergenic and a potential endocrine disruptor, and has been detected in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood.

Fewer than half of the products in this year’s guide contain active ingredients that the FDA has proposed are safe and effective, according to the EWG.

“Based on the best current science and toxicology data, we continue to recommend sunscreens with the mineral active ingredients zinc dioxide and titanium dioxide, because they are the only two ingredients the FDA recognized as safe or effective in their proposed draft rules,” said Carla Burns, an EWG research and database analyst who manages the updates to the sunscreen guide.

Most people select sunscreen products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that bigger numbers offer better protection. According to the FDA, higher SPF values haven’t been shown to provide additional clinical benefit and may give users a false sense of protection. This may lead to overexposure to UVA rays that increase the risk of long-term skin damage and cancer. The FDA has proposed limiting SPF claims to 60+.

“Our understanding of the dangers associated with UVA exposure is increasing, and they are of great concern,” said Burns. “Sunburn during early life, especially childhood, is very dangerous and a risk factor for all skin cancers, but especially melanoma. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to sun damage. Just a few blistering sunburns early in life can double a person’s risk of developing melanoma later in life.”

EWG researchers found 180 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.

It’s important to remember that sunscreen is only one part of a sun safety routine, according to the EWG. People should also protect their skin by covering up with clothing, hats, and sunglasses. And sunscreen must be reapplied at least every two hours to stay effective.

In addition to products that get high ratings for providing adequate broad-spectrum protection and that are made with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns, EWG’s “Guide to Sunscreens” also includes lists of:

Quick tips for choosing better sunscreens are:

  • Check your products in EWG’s sunscreen databaseand avoid those with harmful ingredients.
  • Avoid products with oxybenzone. This chemical penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and can affect 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, and they may not provide a thick and uniform coating on the skin.
  • 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.
  • Avoid intense sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Consumers can download EWG’s Healthy Living app to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. Also, check out EWG’s sunscreen label decoder.

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