80% of Sunscreens Are Ineffective or Harmful, According to New Guide

CC BY 2.0. Joshua Ganderson

Your sunscreen is probably worthless, harmful, or both, as only 21% of the 1,700 sunscreen products analyzed by EWG were found to be both effective and safe.

Before you head out into the sun for the long weekend, you might want to take a closer look at the sunscreen you plan to use for protection, because it might not live up to its claims, and it may be exposing you to other dangers due to potentially harmful ingredients.

The latest edition of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) sunscreen guide, which analyzed some 1,700 products with sun protection claims (including not only sunscreens, but also SPF-rated moisturizers and lip balms) aims to help consumers make better choices when it comes to protecting skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

If you believe the labels on most sunscreen products, including the misleading SPF ratings, we can simply slather on a bunch of this goo and stay out in the sun for hours and hours with no risk of damage to our skin. But as the senior scientist at EWG, Dave Andrews, says, "not all sunscreens are created equal," so it's not enough to just trust the marketing claims that come from the companies themselves.

"Many products do not provide enough UVA protection. Some contain hazardous chemicals such as the hormone disruptor oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A linked to skin damage. Shoppers who use our guide can find sunscreens that are not only more effective but safer for themselves and their family." - Andrews

The 2015 Sunscreen Guide from EWG is intended to cut through the misleading information provided by the manufacturers on the packaging and in the advertising campaigns, and to highlight the most effective and safest products to use.

The guide also singles out the worst of the products, with more than 30 of the sunscreen products making it to the "Hall of Shame" for sprayable versions (which can be inadvertently inhaled or fail to adequately cover the skin), the inclusion of potentially harmful ingredients (such as oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or Vitamin A as retinyl palmitate, which is implicated in the development of skin cancer), or misleading SPF claims (SPF protection tops out at 30 to 50, says EWG).

In fact, according to this watchdog organization, about half of all the products covered by the guide "could not be sold in Europe," due to stricter rules set by the European Commission about SPF values and UVA protection. In the U.S., however, our current regulations about personal care products allow manufacturers to add "nearly any inactive ingredient to their products," including chemicals that may alter hormones in the body, cause damage to skin, or trigger allergic reactions in the users.

"Many studies have shown that people are misled by label claims about sun protection and that, as a result, those who use higher SPF sunscreens are more likely to stay out in the sun longer and more likely to burn." - Sonya Lunder, EWG senior analyst

It's not all bad news on the sunscreen front, though, because even though many of the sun protection products didn't pass the stringent standards set by EWG, the best of the ones analyzed in the study, some 217 of them, passed muster and received

But the organization also urges some common sense when it comes to sun protection, and recommends sunscreen as a "last resort," after staying out of the sun during the more intense hours in the middle of the day, covering up bare skin with a physical barrier (hats, long sleeves, etc.) and staying in the shade when possible. That's the strategy I always use, and because I live in the high desert in southwestern New Mexico, before I reach for the sunscreen, I choose to wear long sleeves and pants during the middle of the day and throughout periods of long sun exposure, and to put on my big-brimmed sun hat. It might not be very stylish, but I spend a lot of time outside, and I'd rather look like a dork than fry my skin in the sun all summer.

Check out the full 2015 Sunscreen Guide at EWG to see how your favorite sun protection products measure up.