Using sunscreen is imperative for protecting your skin from sunburn or cancer. But finding a product that really works to safeguard against ultraviolat A (UVA) rays isn’t always so easy.
According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s 12th annual sunscreen guide, 67 percent of products tested don’t work well or contain potentially harmful ingredients.
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Consumer Reports also examined popular products and of the 73 lotions, sprays, sticks, and lip balms in their ratings this year, 24 tested at less than half their labeled SPF number.
For the EWG report released Tuesday, researchers evaluated more than 1,000 sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms that advertise sun protection.
“The majority of sunscreens available in the U.S. aren’t as good as most consumers think they are,” Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst at EWG, said.
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In fact, according to the group’s research, most sunscreen products on the market were found to contain “hormone-disrupting ingredients,” such as oxybenzone. In Hawaii, state lawmakers passed legislation to ban sunscreen products with oxybenzone and octinoxate, claiming the two ingredients are damaging to coral reefs.
But whether or not oxybenzone is actually harmful to skin has long been up for debate.
Sharon Doyle puts sunscreen on the face of 9-year-old Savannah Stidham as they visit the beach June 20, 2006 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
According to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, “Oxybenzone and octinoxate, found in the majority of sunscreens, are safe and effective over-the-counter (OTC) active ingredients recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as important aides in decreasing the risk of developing skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S,” the association told the Washington Post.
The American Academy of Dermatology also continues to recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone.
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But EWG warns that the allergen “soaks through skin and can be detected in the bodies of nearly every American” as a hormone disruptor.
Consumer Reports noted that oxybenzone and octinoxate have been found to cause hormonal changes in animals, but short-term studies in people didn’t show any adverse effects.
The same goes for retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A. How harmful is it, really?
EWG warns that retinyl palmitate “may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight,” citing a 2012 study from the National Institutes of Health. But the large study examined mice. Retinyl palmitate has not been studied in humans.
Still, Consumer Reports says retinoids used for skin conditions like acne have been previously linked to birth defects.
“As a precaution, pregnant women may want to choose a sunscreen without the ingredient retinol palmitate or retinyl palmitate,” the organization wrote.
A higher SPF level doesn’t always mean it’s a better product.
Sharon Doyle puts sunscreen on the arm of 9-year-old Savannah Stidham as they visit the beach June 20, 2006 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
EWG also urges the public to be wary of high SPF numbers, which they consider a marketing gimmick in the industry.
“SPF values of 75, 80, or 100 lull Americans into thinking their skin is fully protected from the sun’s harmful rays for extended periods of time,” EWG senior scientist David Andrews said. “People tend to misuse these high SPF products, spending more time in the sun without reapplying, putting them and their families at greater risk of UV damage.”
According to EWG researchers, high-SPF products contain more sun-filtering chemicals than others. This could lead to other types of sun damage (like melanoma risk) and health risks such as allergic reactions, tissue damage, hormone disruption and more.
But that doesn’t mean you should aim for products with low SPF. The American Academy of Dermatology standards require an SPF of 30 or higher.
The effectiveness of mineral sunscreens is debatable.
Researchers at EWG and Consumer Reports fall on separate sides of the debate when it comes to just how effective mineral sunscreens are.
According to EWG, zinc oxide and titanium-oxide based mineral sunscreens, which contain tiny nanoparticles to reduce or eliminate chalky tints on the skin, have favorable ratings. In fact, zinc oxide is EWG’s top choice for sun protection.
But Consumer Reports argues that so-called “natural or mineral sunscreens” don’t actually perform very well.
“None of the mineral sunscreens in our tests this year did well enough to make our list of recommendations,” Consumer Reports said.
European sunscreens may fare better than American products when it comes to UVA protection.
Photo: Tom Merton/Getty Images
Last year, researchers with New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center published a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology that found that while most high-SPF sunscreens in the U.S. meet national standards for UVA protection, about half don’t meet European standards.
In the U.S., products only measure SPF based on protection against ultraviolet B rays, which cause sunburn.
“Essentially, sunscreens in Europe have a better probability of balanced protection, and the U.S. system is not as sensitive for UVA,” Henry Lim of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health. “U.S. manufacturers are waiting for approval to create and market that better balance.”
According to EWG, nearly all reviewed sunscreens filtered harmful UVA rays, a nearly 20 percent increase since 2007.
The Sunscreen Innovation Act of 2014, a law signed by former President Barack Obama allowing more efficient FDA review of sunscreen ingredients, helped drive some positive changes.
But researchers say the FDA Broad Spectrum Testing standards are still too weak and more supportive safety data is needed to warrant proposed changes.
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Your sunscreen won’t protect you from all sun damage.
No matter how much sunscreen you wear or how often, it’s still important to avoid the sunlight when the sun is brightest (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and dress appropriately. According to Consumer Reports, this means opting for tightly-woven fabrics and a hat.
“To be truly effective at preventing skin damage and skin cancers, U.S. sunscreens need to provide better protection from UVA rays,” EWG wrote in its report. “This will not happen until the FDA sets higher requirements for UVA protection and approves modern sunscreen ingredients with superior UVA filtering and stability.”
Avoid spray-on sunscreens for kids.
Sunscreen sprays are considerably popular with consumers, but researchers caution against using spray products due to possible inhalation risk. EWG is also concerned the spray doesn’t provide as thick and even coating of protection.
The FDA urges those using spray sunscreens to apply product to the hands and then apply to the face. If you use the spray on a child, spray the sunscreen into your hands and then apply the product to the child’s skin.
Some of the best sunscreens, according to EWG and Consumer Reports
EWG published a list of 216 beach and sport sunscreens that met its criteria, including Alba Botanica’s Facial Mineral Sunscreen (SPF 20) and Neutrogena’s Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen (SPF 30).
Consumer Reports also mentioned some affordable recommendations, including Equate Sport Lotion (SPF 50) and Trader Joe’s Spray (SPF 50).
More tips on using sunscreen
- Apply 15-30 minutes before going outdoors.
- Use at least a teaspoon of product on each body part.
- Shake spray-on products well.
Explore more from EWG and Consumer Reports.