EWG's 2021 Guide to Sunscreens Ranks Best Choices

The Environmental Working Group scientists analyzed over 1,800 different sunscreens across a range of categories.

mother applies sunscreen to child

Getty Images / Catherine Ledner

For the past 15 years, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released an annual guide to sunscreens, helping people to navigate the overwhelming number of options on the market. A team of experts examines the efficacy and safety of individual products and offers insights into the many claims that appear on sunscreen labels.

In this year's guide, the team analyzed over 1,800 different sunscreens across a range of categories. They found that only 25% provided adequate protection from the sun and did not contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, which can still be found in 40% of non-mineral-based sunscreens in the United States. Oxybenzone may have potential health risks and has been shown to be devastating for coral reefs.

EWG explains that, while the Food and Drug Administration has not updated its sunscreen regulations since 2011, other research reveals the risks of using oxybenzone. The National Toxicology Program published a study in December 2020 that raised concerns about potential long-term health effects, based on an increased rate of thyroid tumors in female rats exposed to oxybenzone. In March the European Commission "published a final opinion finding oxybenzone unsafe for use at current levels.

Nneka Leiba, vice-president of healthy living science at EWG, said in a press release

"Yet again, the 2021 sunscreen market is flooded with products that use potentially harmful ingredients and provide poor UVA protection... US 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."

EWG's guide can help in the meantime. It shows that the best sunscreens are mineral-based, as these rely on zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide to block and scatter the sun's rays before they penetrate the skin. They also offer better broad-spectrum protection, which refers to their ability to block both UVA and UVB rays. 

From the report: "FDA requires a broad spectrum test, but don't trust this claim. Many products that claim broad spectrum protection do not pass a stricter European Commission test." EWG estimates that most US sunscreens could not even be sold in Europe, due to their low UVA standards. 

Another matter of concern is SPF value, and the misconception many shoppers have that a higher value equals better protection. EWG senior scientist Dr. David Andrews, who worked on the 2021 Sunscreen Guide, called these "a marketing gimmick" that can lead to exposure to harmful rays. "High SPF numbers encourage misuse, particularly if a person spends more time in the sun without reapplying."

The report urges people not to be "lulled into a false sense of security by high SPF numbers! Numbers greater than 50+ offer only marginally better protection from burning and may not provide a good balance for other types of sun damage." The optimal range is 15-20 SPF, with frequent and thorough application to ensure proper protection. 

And when it comes to application, just how much should you use? The recommendation is at least one ounce per time. Think of a standard 1.5-ounce U.S. shot glass for reference and reduce that by one-third (or use the extra amount for extra protection). Apply after spending time in the water, toweling off, getting sweaty, or at least every two hours.

Avoid sprays and powders, as these tend not to spread thickly and uniformly and make it hard to gauge how well-protected you are. Sprays also pose an inhalation risk. 

As usual, the guide emphasizes that sunscreen should not be your first line of defense against the sun. It's a tool in your toolbox of sun-protection strategies, which should include seeking out shade, covering your skin and face with clothing and a hat, wearing sunglasses, and timing your outdoor adventures to avoid peak hours. 

Categories within the 2021 guide include best recreational sunscreens, best non-mineral sunscreens, best baby and kids sunscreens, best daily use SPF products, and best lip balms with SPF. You can see all of it here.