With it being beach season, many people are looking for the best sunscreens to cut their risk of sun overexposure, sunburns and skin cancer.
The issue? All sunscreens are NOT created equally. In fact, a 2019 report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that nearly 2/3 of sunscreens don’t work and/or contain toxic ingredients that are readily absorbed by your body. In fact, a recent study found that sunscreen chemicals hit the bloodstream within one day of using them.
There is NO clear evidence that using sunscreens will prevent skin cancer and some ingredients may even fuel the development of skin cancer. Nearly 67% of sunscreen products reviewed by the EWG either didn’t work adequately to protect from UV rays or they contained dangerous ingredients. Some of the most harmful ingredients include oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
Oxybenzone is the most widely used in U.S. chemical-based sunscreens. Lab testing shows skin penetration rates of 1-9% and is concerning because it is a known endocrine disruptor. This means it acts like an estrogen in the body and is linked to abnormal sperm function in animal studies and endometriosis in studies of women. Oxybenzone also acts as a skin allergen to a significant number of people.
About 40% of sunscreens reviewed contained vitamin A ingredients like retinyl palmitate. This type of ingredient can react with UV rays and actually increase the risk of skin tumors, according to government animal testing.
In fact, scientists don’t know for sure if sunscreen even helps prevent melanoma. The EWG notes in its executive summary of sunscreen guide, “Sun exposure appears to play a role in melanoma, but it is a complex disease for which many questions have not been answered. One puzzling fact: Melanomas do not appear on parts of the body that get daily sun exposure.”
This EWG’s 13th Annual Guide to Sunscreens report shows that, while there have been major improvements over the last decade, most sunscreens available for purchase in the U.S. still contain dangerous chemicals or fail to offer enough protection against damaging ultraviolet rays.
A past EWG report cited research of Brain Diffey, PhD, emeritus professor of photobiology at the Institute of Cellular Medicine at Newcastle University. He proved that, on average, U.S. sunscreens allow about three times more UVA rays to transfer through skin compared to European sunscreens. About ½ of the sunscreen products sold in the U.S. wouldn’t pass the more stringent European standards because they don’t filter enough UVA rays.
This fact matters because UVA rays are more abundant than UVB rays, and the damage from UVA is more subtle than sunburns induced by UVB rays. UVA rays can damage your skin invisibly by suppressing the immune system and aging skin faster. Overexposure of UVA rays are also linked to the development of skin cancer (melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma).
In a newly proposed rule from the FDA, the agency is finally voicing concern about the role of UVA rays in the development of skin cancer. It started that “UVA exposure is a significant concern,” and high SPF products currently on the market may expose users to “excessively large UVA doses.”
Despite evidence showing if sunscreen even prevents skin cancer, it’s still legal from sunscreens to make cancer prevention claims. The FDA banned the use of misleading sunscreen bottle label claims like “waterproof” and “sweatproof” in 2011, but other misleading marketing terms are still used including “sun shield” and “age shield”. These terms imply full protection, reassuring someone that it’s all they need to protect their skin. We know that is simply not true.
From 2007-2018, there as been a 41% increase in mineral sunscreen in the U.S. These sunscreens tend to block UVA better than chemical sunscreen ingredients and also tend to be rated safer in EWG’s database. Many contain harmful chemicals and even mineral-based ones often contain nanoparticles – minute ingredients that can cross the blood-brain barrier harming our bodies and aquatic life. Thankfully Hawaii has been able to ban oxybenzone in sunscreen due to its ability to bleach and kill coral reefs.
We suggest steering clear of spray sunscreens because of the difficulty to apply the necessary thickness for adequate protection and the increased risk of sending sunscreen chemicals directly into your lungs. Almost 30% of sunscreens tested were in spray form, The FDA raised concerns about spray sunscreens, even though the agency hasn’t banned them yet.
The EWG has been pushing the FDA to update and improve sunscreen regulations for years to better protect public health. Now, the FDA is finally taking up this issue and proposing big changes to sunscreens. The downside? This is all still in the works, so it doesn’t yet pertain to sunscreens on sale now.
The EWG reports, “In February, the agency at long last issued a proposed set of final rules. As written, the new rules would bring significant advances in both effectiveness and safety…But many big chemical manufactures and sunscreen companies are lobbying heavily for a much weaker proposal that would likely leave the state of sunscreens in the U.S. largely unchanged.”
Now, it’s important to note there is NO PERFECT SUNSCREEN. Plus, sunscreen is unique compared to many other personal care products because you coat it thickly onto your skin, often multiple times per day. These reasons are why it’s very important to look for safer sunscreens if you use them and recognize that you can’t only rely on sunscreen to prevent sun overexposure.
“No product is going to be fully protective and no product will last on your skin for more than 2 hours max,” explains Lunder. She says thickly applying sunscreen coatings, reapplying every time you’re out of the water and choosing a better product to begin with are all key.
Here’s a complete list of the EWG’s sunscreens and you can search all sunscreens here: