This summer marks the first sunscreen season governed by rules put into effect last December by the federal Food and Drug Administration. These regulations demand truth in sunscreen marketing and, for the first time, require that claims of water resistance and broad spectrum sun protection be validated.
Despite the FDA’s actions, an EWG review of the sunscreen market finds only minimal improvements in products on the shelves for the summer of 2013. Many sunscreens available on the U.S. market do not filter skin-damaging rays safely and effectively.
Paradoxically, Americans are increasingly aware of the dangers of overexposure to the sun. But at the same time, rates of first-time diagnoses of melanoma — the most deadly skin cancer — have tripled over the past 35 years, increasing 1.9 percent annually since 2000 (NCI 2013, CDC 2013).
Why? No one has definitive answers. One factor may be misleading sunscreen marketing: hype that causes people to believe, wrongly, that their products are blocking harmful rays.
One quarter of sunscreens we have reviewed for 2013 offer good skin protection and are free of ingredients with serious safety concerns. But many fall short.
Broad spectrum protection – Almost every sunscreen meets the FDA’s new rules for “broad spectrum protection,” meaning, protection against both ultraviolet A and B rays. The catch is, the FDA’s criteria are the weakest in the modern world. Half of the U.S. sunscreens that meet the FDA rules would not make it to store shelves in Europe, where, since 2006, sunscreen makers have voluntarily complied with stricter European Union standards (European Commission 2006).
High SPF – Sky-high SPF numbers are no measure of product effectiveness. A sunscreen’s sun protection factor, or SPF, measures its ability to screen skin burning UV rays, primarily UVB rays. The SPF value does not reflect the product’s ability to filter out UVA rays that, according to a growing body of evidence, cause skin damage, immune suppression and possibly melanoma. Studies show that high-SPF users are exposed to as many or more ultraviolet rays than those who use lower-SPF products. Experts believe that people get a false sense of security from those big numbers, don’t apply enough sunscreen, wait too long before reapplying and spend too much time in bright sun.
About 1 in 7 beach and sport sunscreens is labeled with SPF values greater than 50+. The FDA has proposed to limit SPF claims to 50+ but has not issued a regulation to that end. European manufacturers are bound by a European Union rule that caps SPF claims at 50+.
Sprays and powders – In 2011 FDA expressed concern about the safety and UV-filtering ability of sunscreen sprays and is studying them in more depth but has not banned them outright. Consequently, sprays remain popular. About 1 in 4 sunscreens in EWG’s database is a spray.
The FDA has made a rule barring sunscreen and makeup with SPF in loose powder form but has exempted small manufacturers until December of this year to remove products from the market. Many powder sunscreens and make-ups with SPF contain zinc or titanium nanoparticles that should not be inhaled. Nor can users know if they are applying a thick, even coating essential for UV protection.
Many of the 2013 crop of sunscreen products contain potentially toxic ingredients. Among them:
– Vitamin A, also known as retinyl palmitate and retinol – This ingredient is in 25 percent of this season’s beach and sport sunscreens. It is used in regular makeup as an anti-aging ingredient but, perversely, has been shown to hasten the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin. Data on the potential skin cancer risk of retinyl palmitate have been public since 2010, but most sunscreen makers have not removed this chemical from their products. EWG recommends that consumers avoid using sunscreen and cosmetics whose labels disclose the presence of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate or retinol until this chemical’s safety on sun-exposed skin is proven.
– Oxybenzone – This common chemical sunscreen filter is used in nearly half of the beach and sport sunscreens. It soaks through skin, triggers allergic skin reactions in sensitive individuals and may be a hormone disruptor. The FDA has yet to review any data on the potential toxicity of oxybenzone and other chemical sunscreen ingredients, despite evidence they can mimic hormones (Krause 2012) and have been detected in urine and breast milk samples (Schlumpf 2010, Calafat 2008).
– Moisturizers, lip products and make-up with SPF – Less than 10 percent of all moisturizers, lip products and makeup with SPF earn EWG’s green “recommended” rating, compared to one-quarter of all beach and sport sunscreens. Moisturizers, lip balm and SPF-laced makeup should offer critical, year-round protection from UVA rays, which vary less by season than UVB rays, but most don’t. Under FDA rules. many cannot claim “broad spectrum” protection.
* Statistics in this report are based on products in the EWG database as of May 2013.