Three-Fourths of Sunscreen Products Offer Inferior Protection or Contain Worrisome Ingredients

EWG Releases 2020 Guide to Sunscreens
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For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, May 21, 2020

WASHINGTON – As states reopen and Americans leave their homes to venture outside, it’s important for them to remember to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Today the Environmental Working Group released its 14th annual Guide to Sunscreens.  

This year researchers rated the safety and efficacy of more than 1,300 SPF products – including sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms – and found that only 25 percent offer adequate protection and do not contain worrisome ingredients such as oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed by the body.

Despite a delay in finalizing rules that would make all sunscreens on U.S. store shelves safer, the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that governs sunscreen safety, is completing tests that highlight concerns with common sunscreen ingredients. Last year, the agency published two studies showing that, with just a single application, six commonly used chemical active ingredients, including oxybenzone, are readily absorbed through the skin and could be detected in our bodies at levels that could cause harm.

“It's quite concerning,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG's vice president of Healthy Living science. “Those studies don’t prove whether the sunscreens are unsafe, but they do highlight problems with how these products are regulated.”

“EWG has been advocating for the FDA to review these chemical ingredients for 14 years,” Leiba said. “We slather these ingredients on our skin, but these chemicals haven't been adequately tested. This is just one example of the backward nature of product regulation in the U.S.”

Oxybenzone remains a commonly used active ingredient, found in more than 40 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in this year’s guide. Oxybenzone is allergenic and a potential endocrine disruptor, and has been detected in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine and blood.

According to EWG’s assessment, fewer than half of the products in this year’s guide contain active ingredients that the FDA has proposed are safe and effective.

“Based on the best current science and toxicology data, we continue to recommend sunscreens with the mineral active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, because they are the only two ingredients the FDA recognized as safe or effective in their proposed draft rules,” said Carla Burns, an EWG research and database analyst who manages the updates to the sunscreen guide.

Most people select sunscreen products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that bigger numbers offer better protection. According to the FDA, higher SPF values have not been shown to provide additional clinical benefit and may give users a false sense of protection. This may lead to overexposure to UVA rays that increase the risk of long-term skin damage and cancer. The FDA has proposed limiting SPF claims to 60+.

EWG continues to hone our recommendations by strengthening the criteria for assessing sunscreens, which are based on the latest findings in the scientific literature and commissioned tests of sunscreen product efficacy. This year EWG made changes to our methodology in order to strengthen our requirement that products provide the highest level of UVA protection.

“Our understanding of the dangers associated with UVA exposure is increasing, and they are of great concern,” said Burns. “Sunburn during early life, especially childhood, is very dangerous and a risk factor for all skin cancers, but especially melanoma. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to sun damage. Just a few blistering sunburns early in life can double a person’s risk of developing melanoma later in life.”

EWG researchers found 180 sunscreens that meet our criteria for safety and efficacy and would likely meet the proposed FDA standards. Even the biggest brands now provide mineral options for consumers.  

Even for Americans continuing to follow stay-at-home orders, wearing an SPF product may still be important. If you’re sitting by a window, UVA and UVB rays can penetrate the glass.  

It is important to remember that sunscreen is only one part of a sun safety routine. People should also protect their skin by covering up with clothing, hats and sunglasses. And sunscreen must be reapplied at least every two hours to stay effective.

EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens helps consumers find products that get high ratings for providing adequate broad-spectrum protection and that are made with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns.

The new guide also includes lists of:

Here are more quick tips for choosing better sunscreens:

  • Check your products in EWG’s sunscreen database and avoid those with harmful ingredients.
  • Avoid products with oxybenzone. This chemical penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and can affect normal hormone activities.
  • Steer clear of products with SPF higher than 50+. High SPF values do not necessarily provide increased UVA protection and may fool you into thinking you are safe from sun damage.
  • Avoid sprays. These popular products pose inhalation concerns, and they may not provide a thick and uniform coating on the skin.
  • Stay away from retinyl palmitate. Government studies link the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when it is applied to sun-exposed skin.
  • Avoid intense sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Shoppers on the go can download EWG’s Healthy Living app to get ratings and safety information on sunscreens and other personal care products. Also be sure to check out EWG’s sunscreen label decoder.

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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.