Only 1/3 of Sunscreens Are Safe and Effective, Here's Where to Find Them

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The 2019 rating by EWG finds that most sunscreens contain sketchy ingredients and/or don't offer adequate protection.

Nobody wants to get sunburned, or get skin cancer, or have their skin age prematurely. So we buy sunscreen by the bucketsful and slather ourselves with it and call it a day. But as it turns out, not all sunscreens are created equally. And in fact, this year's assessment from environmental health watchdog Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that two-thirds of sunscreen products offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients.

The annual rating of sun protection potions – this year's is the 13th Annual Guide to Sunscreens – scores the safety and efficacy of SPF products, including sunscreens, daily moisturizers and lip balms with SPF values. This year, EWG researchers looked at more than 1300 products and found that a whopping two-thirds of them do not provide adequate sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients, like oxybenzone.

In better news, earlier this year the Food and Drug Administration announced a proposal for updated sunscreen regulations. To be honest, it's a bit surprising to see the current administration leaning toward more stringent oversight of an industry – but we'll take what we can get! Remarkably, based on the agency's draft of new rules, only 40 percent of the products on EWG’s list contain active ingredients that FDA has proposed are safe and effective.

“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 Nneka Leiba, director of EWG’s Healthy Living Science program. “It’s long past time that the chemicals used in sunscreens were tested to show that they will not harm our health.”

While the state of sunscreen may seem a bit grim, EWG did find more than 260 sunscreens that met their criteria for safety and efficacy – and that would likely meet the proposed FDA rules. It appears that now even some of the bigger brands are heeding the desire of consumers in creating mineral-based options, which are the safer bet.

Two of the big takeaways from the report include WHAT TO AVOID:

Oxybenzone: EWG writes that research has found that oxybenzone is an allergen that is absorbed by the skin and can be found in the bodies of nearly every American. "It is also a potential hormone disruptor still used in 60 percent of non-mineral sunscreens. Earlier this month, the FDA published a peer-reviewed study in the prestigious journal JAMA that 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. In another study, American adolescent boys with higher concentrations of oxybenzone in their bodies had lower levels of testosterone."

High SPF Values: The higher the sun protection factor values (SPF), not the better. EWG says that claims of high SPF values are increasing ... and misleading. A high SPF value may help to prevent sunburn, but it is only relevant to UVB protection, giving a false since of security as it does not protect against harmful ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that cause skin aging and possibly melanoma.

“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.”

If you don't have access to EWG's database when shopping for sunscreen, keep these QUICK TIPS in mind:

  • Don't use products with oxybenzone
  • Avoid products with SPF higher than 50+
  • Don't use sprays; they may seem like a good option for coverage, but they pose inhalation risks
  • Steer clear of retinyl palmitate; this form of vitamin A is linked to skin tumors and lesions when it is applied to sun-exposed skin

You can read the executive summary of report here and search sunscerens here. In addition, EWG has created lists for specific sunscreen needs. These are super helpful.

Best Rated Beach & Sports Sunscreens
Best Rated Sunscreens for Kids
Best Non-Mineral Sunscreens
Best Moisturizers with SPF
Best Lip Balms with SPF

Oh, and while the EWG list provides health information for humans, don't forget the harm that sunscreen ingredients can cause to coral. The Oceanic Society notes that oxybenzone and octinoxate are the most well-studied culprits, but researchers are also finding that other chemicals in sunscreens may also be harmful to coral reefs, in particular octocrylene, 4MBC, and butylparaben. So looks out for those as well.

Getting some sun is important, and wearing a healthy sunscreen is a good way to protect your skin – but it's not the only answer. Wear hats, sunglasses, loose clothing, rash guards and visors when swimming, use a parasol when walking, sit under an umbrella at the beach, and avoiding sun at its strongest will all go a long way towards zero-waste, chemical-free sun protection.