WASHINGTON – Today the Environmental Working Group 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's 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.
“On the bright side, more than 280 sunscreens measure up to our rigorous standards,” said Emily Spilman, a science analyst with EWG’s Healthy Living Science team. “EWG’s guide is one of the only tools available to help consumers find products that provide adequate protection and are made without ingredients that may pose health concerns.”
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.
Last year, the European Commission issued findings that some sunscreen ingredients are unsafe at certain levels. In March 2021, it found oxybenzone unsafe for use at a concentration up to 6 percent. And in June 2021, it found homosalate, another common active sunscreen ingredient, unsafe for use at currently allowed levels.
In the U.S., the National Toxicology Program in December 2019 published a study on oxybenzone that raised more concerns about the potential for long-term health effects, finding an increased rate of thyroid tumors in female rats potentially linked to exposure.
“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. Oxybenzone is a skin sensitizer and potential hormone disruptor that may be harmful to both children and adults.
“The long-term use of these chemicals, and especially chemicals not adequately tested for safety, could be problematic,” Burns added. “It’s gratifying to see companies continue to reformulate their SPF products to move away from these concerning ingredients.”
In September 2021, the FDA renewed a call for ingredients safety data from manufacturers.
“The sunscreen industry continues to bury its head in the sand,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “The market is flooded with products that provide poor UVA protection and use concerning ingredients. Sunscreen sales have increased dramatically, so sunscreen companies can certainly afford to conduct the studies needed to ensure their customers are safe.”
“We’re grateful the FDA continues to demand basic data on the health effects of these chemicals, but U.S. sunscreens won’t improve until the agency sets stronger regulations.”
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.
“The FDA must strengthen standards and ensure that consumers have access to products with the safest and most effective ingredients. Products with improved UVA protection are long overdue,” he added.
EWG scientists found sunscreens often fell far short of the claims of protection against UVA rays, which cause aging, harm to the immune system 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.
Most sunscreens reviewed by EWG also failed to live up to boasts of protection related to UVB rays, which are largely responsible for sunburn. “The lack of adequate broad-spectrum protection is a public health problem,” Andrews said.
“Products with poor UV protection and misleading sunscreen labels could be contributing to an increasing risk of skin cancer. Broad-spectrum products provide greater protection from UVA rays that are associated with skin cancer, free radical generation and immune harm,” Andrews said.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.9 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 23.9 per 100,000 in 2019. The reasons for this trend are unclear, but scientists have established that risk factors include family history, indoor tanning, fair skin, freckles, moles, ultraviolet radiation and severe sunburns.
Most sunscreens sold in the U.S. provide inadequate UVA protection and likely could not be sold in the Europe, which sets much stricter UVA standards, EWG estimates.
“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 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.”
“Sunscreen is an important line of defense from harmful ultraviolet radiation,” said Anat Lebow, M.D., of Lebow Dermatology, in New York. “To protect your skin, remember to reapply sunscreen every couple hours — especially after sweating, swimming or toweling off. SPF provides information about how much UV radiation it takes to burn the skin, mostly describing ultraviolet B radiation. I recommend broad-band SPF protection that also protects against harmful UVA rays.”
Sunscreen is only one tool in the sun safety toolbox – it can help protect the skin from sun damage but should never be a person’s only line of defense.
Proper sun protection includes protective clothing, like a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and shade.
Here are more tips for choosing better sunscreens and staying safe in the sun:
- Avoid products with oxybenzone, which is absorbed through the skin in large amounts and can affect hormone levels.
- Stay away from vitamin A in sunscreens. Government studies link the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when it’s applied to sun-exposed skin.
- Steer clear of sunscreens with SPF values above 50+, which may not give increased UVA protection and can fool people into thinking they’re safe from sun damage.
- Avoid sprays. These popular products make it difficult to apply an adequate and even coating on skin, especially in windy conditions. They also pose inhalation concerns.
- Avoid intense sun exposure during peak hours for sun exposure, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Check products against EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens and avoid those with harmful additives.
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.