Only 25 percent of the sunscreens rated this year by the Environmental Working Group offer adequate protection and no worrisome ingredients such as oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical that is easily absorbed by the body.
For its 15th annual Guide to Sunscreens, EWG researchers rated the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,800 products that advertise sun protection – including recreational sunscreens, daily-use SPF products, and lip balms with SPF.
Although fewer products are now made with the active ingredient oxybenzone, which is detected in the body of nearly every American, it was still found in about 40 percent of non-mineral sunscreens. This is down from 60 percent of the non-mineral SPF products reviewed two years ago.
“For 15 years, EWG has warned consumers about the health hazards linked to oxybenzone and other potentially harmful ingredients used in sunscreens,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG vice president of healthy living science.
It’s gratifying to continue to see companies reformulating their SPF products to move away from concerning ingredients, Leiba said.
In December 2020, the National Toxicology Program published a study on oxybenzone that raised more concerns about the potential for long-term health effects, finding an increased rate of thyroid tumors in female rats potentially linked to exposure.
In addition, the European Commission, which reviews ingredient safety in Europe, published a final opinion finding oxybenzone unsafe for use at current levels. Its preliminary opinion for homosalate also found it unsafe.
“Yet again, the 2021 sunscreen market is flooded with products that use potentially harmful ingredients and provide poor UVA protection,” she said.
With EWG’s guide, consumers can find products that provide adequate protection and are made without ingredients that may pose health concerns.
“U.S. sunscreens will not sufficiently improve until the Food and Drug Administration sets stronger regulations, restricts the use of harmful chemicals and approves new active ingredients that offer stronger UVA and UVB protection without concern of causing harm,” Leiba said.
The best-scoring sunscreens on EWG’s list contain the mineral-based active ingredients zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both, since they have fewer health concerns and offer good sun protection, according to organization.
EWG said zinc oxide especially provides good broad-spectrum protection and protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and it’s stable in the sun.
“The majority of sunscreen products sold in the U.S. don’t offer adequate protection against both UVA and UVB rays,” said Carla Burns, EWG senior healthy living science analyst, who works on the Sunscreen Guide. “But the good news is there are more than 400 SPF products that meet our rigorous standards.”
More than one in 10 of the sunscreens EWG reviewed claimed to have an SPF greater than 50+.
“High SPF values are a marketing gimmick that could lead to overexposure to harmful rays,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, Ph.D., who works on the Sunscreen Guide.
High SPF numbers encourage misuse, particularly if a person spends more time in the sun without reapplying, said Andrews.
EWG estimates that, because they provide inadequate UVA protection, most sunscreens sold in the U.S. wouldn’t be sold in Europe, which sets much more stringent UVA standards.
Sunscreen products are capped at SPF 50 in Europe and Japan, and 50+ in Canada and Australia.
The FDA is due to propose its rules on sunscreens again this fall.
Sunscreen is only one tool in the sun safety toolbox – it can help protect the skin from sun damage but should never be a person’s only line of defense.
Proper sun protection includes protective clothing, such as a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and shade.
Here are some tips from EWG for choosing better sunscreens and staying safe in the sun:
- Avoid products with oxybenzone.
- Stay away from vitamin A. 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.
- Steer clear of sunscreens with SPF values higher than 50+, which may not provide increased UVA protection and can fool people into thinking they’re safe from sun damage.
- Avoid sprays. These products make it difficult to apply a thick, uniform coating on skin. They also pose inhalation concerns.
- Avoid intense sun exposure during the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Check products against EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens and avoid those with harmful additives.
Shoppers can download EWG’s Healthy Living App to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products while shopping. EWG’s sunscreen label decoder can also help consumers looking for safer sunscreens.