This year, EWG scientists investigated more than 750 beach and sport sunscreens for our 10th annual guide, and while there has been significant progress over the last decade, serious concerns remain.
Almost 75 percent of the products we examined provide inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like the hormone-disrupting chemical oxybenzone. So before you head out in the sun this Summer, make sure you’re prepared with EWG’s 2016 Guide to Sunscreens.
The increase in mineral-only sunscreens
Since 2007, we have found a dramatic increase in the availability of mineral-only sunscreens, doubling from 17 percent of products to 34 percent in 2016. Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to rate well in our analysis: They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives.
Misleading sky-high SPF values
Consumers select products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that bigger numbers are better. In reality, higher SPF ratings don’t necessarily offer greater protection from other UV-related skin damage and may lead users to spend too much time in the sun.
In 2011, FDA determined that high SPF claims may be “inherently misleading,” and proposed to join most industrialized nations in capping SPF values at 50+. But it hasn’t finalized the rule, and the inflated SPF values for American sunscreens keep climbing: In 2007, only 10 sunscreens in our guide claimed SPF 70 and higher. This year we found 61 products making such claims, including 15 products advertised as SPF 100 or higher.
Increase in UVA filter use
Over the past decade dermatologists and skin cancer researchers have concluded that good sunscreens should not only guard against sunburn, primarily caused by UVB rays, but also protect people from lower-energy UVA rays. In 2007, only one in six products in our guide included an active ingredient that filters UVA rays. In 2011, FDA set the first rules for testing broad spectrum protection, and this year nearly every product in our database contains an ingredient known to filter UVA rays.
Yet FDA’s broad spectrum rule is still too lax. When it was proposed EWG estimated that 80 percent of products would pass the new test without any change to their formulation. Europe sets a higher bar, requiring UVA protection to rise in proportion to SPF, which reflects only UVB protection. This year, we estimate that nearly every sunscreen we reviewed passes the FDA test, but that about half of them would not offer enough UVA protection to be sold in Europe.
UVA protection will not improve until FDA approves the use of modern ingredients that provide stronger protection. In 2014, President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a law to speed the review of new ingredients, which have the potential to dramatically improve the UV protection of American sunscreens. It allows FDA to more efficiently review ingredients that are used successfully on the international sunscreen market. FDA has requested more data from sunscreen companies about the safety and effectiveness of all pending active ingredients.
Despite concerns, sprays still dominate the market
Sunscreen sprays are popular with consumers. In 2007, just under 20 percent of the sunscreens we reviewed were sprays; this year, just under 30 percent were.
But EWG is concerned that these products pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin. In 2011, FDA raised similar concerns. The agency indicated it would ban sprays unless sunscreen companies submitted more data to prove that spray sunscreens protect skin and pose no safety hazards. Until companies can provide the data to negate these concerns, EWG cautions people to avoid these products.
EWG remains concerned that a common sunscreen additive, a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, can harm skin. Government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight.
In 2010, when EWG first voiced concerns about this additive, nearly 40 percent of the products we reviewed contained Vitamin A. Since then, the use of this troubling ingredient in sunscreens has dropped by more than half, contained in only 16 percent of the products we surveyed for 2016.
Oxybenzone is a common UV filter in sunscreen. It is a hormone disruptor and allergen. Sampling by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has detected it in the urine of 97 percent of Americans. Despite emerging concerns, the sunscreen industry continues to rely heavily on oxybenzone as an active ingredient: it was in 70 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens we evaluated for this year’s guide.
Do you depend on sunscreen for skin protection? Millions of Americans do, but they shouldn’t. The rate of melanoma diagnosis is increasing. The consensus among scientists is that sunscreens alone cannot reverse this trend. Yet a good sunscreen can play a role in preventing sunburns that are a major risk factor for melanoma – provided you use it correctly.
Sunscreen should be just one tool in your arsenal. These eight little known facts about sunscreens will help you spot problem products and avoid getting burned.
1. There’s no proof that sunscreens prevent most skin cancer.
Rates of melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer – have tripled over the past 35 years. Most scientists and public health agencies – including the FDA itself – have found very little evidence that sunscreen prevents most types of skin cancer. Read more.
2. Don’t be fooled by high SPF.
High-SPF products tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun too long. The FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50+, calling higher SPF values “inherently misleading,” but it has not issued a regulation that carries the force of law. More than 10 percent of sunscreens we evaluated this year advertise SPF values greater than 50+. Read more.
3. The common sunscreen additive vitamin A may speed development of skin cancer.
The sunscreen industry adds a form of vitamin A to 16 percent of beach and sport sunscreens, 14 percent of moisturizers with SPF and 10 percent of lip products in this year’s database.
Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant that combats skin aging. But studies by federal government scientists indicate that it may trigger development of skin tumors and lesions when used on skin in the presence of sunlight. Other governments warn that cosmetics may contribute to unsafe amounts of vitamin A, and recommend against using vitamin-A-laden cosmetics on the lips and over large portions of the body. EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol. Read More
4. European sunscreens provide better UVA protection.
In Europe, sunscreen makers can formulate their products with any of seven chemicals that filter UVA rays. American manufacturers can use only three UVA-filtering ingredients. They have been waiting for years for FDA approval to use sunscreen ingredients widely available in Europe. The FDA has asked the makers of European sunscreen chemicals for more safety data, but until the FDA approves these ingredients and lifts restrictions on combining certain active ingredients, American consumers will be hard-pressed to find sunscreens with the strongest UVA protection. Read more.
5. Sunscreen doesn’t protect skin from all types of sun damage.
SPF measure protection from sunburn but not other types of skin damage The sun’s ultraviolet rays also generate free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and may cause skin cancer. American sunscreens can reduce these damages, but not as effectively as they prevent sunburn. People can run into problems if they pick a sunscreen with poor UVA protection, apply too little or reapply it infrequently. Sunscreen companies commonly add SPF boosters that inhibit sunburn but may not protect from other damages. The FDA should strengthen its regulations to ensure that sunscreens offer the best possible skin protection. Read more.
6. Some sunscreen ingredients disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies.
There is no perfect sunscreen. Americans must choose between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone system, and “mineral” sunscreens, made with zinc and titanium, often “micronized” or made up of nanoparticles. Some sunscreens also contain inactive sunscreen ingredients that may trigger allergies. FDA should consider new evidence about the ill effects of sunscreen ingredients. Read more.
7. Mineral sunscreens contain nano-particles.
Most zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens contain nanoparticles one-twentieth the width of a human hair, to reduce or eliminate the chalky white tint that larger particles leave on the skin. Based on the available information, EWG gives a favorable rating to mineral sunscreens, but the FDA should restrict the use of unstable or UV-reactive forms of minerals that would lessen skin protection.Read more.
8. If you avoid sun, check your vitamin D levels.
Sunshine causes the body to produce vitamin D, a critical function that sunscreen appears to inhibit. Vitamin D, technically a hormone, strengthens bones and the immune system and reduces risks of breast, colon, kidney and ovarian cancers and perhaps other disorders.
About 25 percent of Americans have borderline low levels of vitamin D, and 8 percent have a serious deficiency. Breast-fed infants, people with darker skin and people who have limited sun exposure are at greatest risk for vitamin D deficiency. Many people can’t or shouldn’t rely on the sun for vitamin D. Check with your doctor to find out whether you should get a vitamin D test or take seasonal or year-round supplements. Read more