The Environmental Working Group has released its 16th annual Guide to Sunscreens, finding that about 75 percent of more than 1,850 products evaluated rate poorly for skin protection from the sun, or have ingredients that could be harmful to health or heighten sensitivity to the sun’s harmful rays.
EWG’s guide rates the safety and efficacy of products advertising sun protection, such as recreational sunscreens, daily-use moisturizers with SPF and lip balms with SPF. Only one out of four products reviewed met our standards for adequate protection and did not contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical.
“Some ingredients commonly found in sunscreens have been linked to both human and environmental concerns,” said Carla Burns, EWG senior director for cosmetic science. “We slather these ingredients on our skin, but many of these chemicals haven’t been adequately tested. EWG has been advocating for the Food and Drug Administration to review these ingredients for 16 years.”
The guide’s best-scoring sunscreens contain zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or both, which have fewer health concerns and offer good sun protection. Zinc oxide is stable in the sun, provides protection from UVA and UVB rays, and offers good broad-spectrum protection. EWG’s list of recommended sunscreens includes brands at a range of price points sold across the U.S. at pharmacies and popular retail stores.
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The FDA has determined that two active ingredients commonly found in sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are generally safe and effective in protecting the skin from the sun. The agency has asked manufacturers to provide more data about the other active ingredients in sunscreens to show they are safe for use.
Fewer sunscreen products are now made with the active ingredient oxybenzone, which is detected in the body of nearly every American. Oxybenzone is readily absorbed by the body and has been detected in human urine, serum and breast milk, suggesting the developing fetus and newborns may also be exposed to this chemical. EWG found it in 30 percent of non-mineral sunscreens reviewed – down from 60 percent three years ago.
“Despite the known toxicity concerns, oxybenzone is still widely used as a non-mineral active ingredient in sunscreens,” said Burns. “Each year we warn consumers about the health hazards linked to oxybenzone and other potentially harmful ingredients used in sunscreens. It is a skin sensitizer and potential hormone disruptor that may be harmful to both children and adults.
Inadequate UV protection
In October 2021, EWG scientists in a study used laboratory tests and computer modeling to assess 51 sunscreens with SPF between 15 and 110 and found many offer just a quarter of their stated SPF protection against ultraviolet A rays, which increase the risk of skin cancer.
“Most of the products we tested reduced UV radiation by only half what we expect from looking at the SPF on the label,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG and lead author of the peer-reviewed research.
“Our study shows that sunscreens are not adequately effective, especially at reducing UVA radiation. And current regulations, which allow inflated SPF values and poor UVA protection, leave consumers vulnerable to harmful sun exposure,” Andrews said.
EWG scientists found sunscreens often fell far short of the claims of protection against UVA rays, which cause aging, immune system harms and greater cancer risks. On average, sunscreens tested in a laboratory, but not on people, provided a meager 24 percent of UVA protection, compared to the labeled SPF value.
Current U.S. regulations and the marketplace promote SPF products that reduce sunburn, instead of sunscreens that provide better broad-spectrum protection. Most evaluations of sunscreen efficacy focus primarily on skin redness, or sunburn, caused by UVB rays. FDA rules ignore the relationship between the labeled SPF and measured UVA protection.
“It is important for people to choose mineral sunscreens that include zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, and come with a broad-spectrum label and an SPF between 30 and 50,” said Dr. Debra Jaliman, M.D., one of the top dermatologists in the nation. “These products do a good job at protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays and have less concerns than chemical-based sunscreens, which can also irritate the skin and get absorbed into the body. EWG’s guide provides consumers with a wide variety of mineral sunscreen options that are both effective and free of potentially harmful chemical ingredients.”
Shoppers on the go can download EWG’s Healthy Living App to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. EWG’s sunscreen label decoder can also help consumers looking for safer sunscreens.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.