WASHINGTON – Ahead of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend and the increasing need for sun protection, the Environmental Working Group has released its 2023 Guide to Sunscreens. This year’s guide reviews the effectiveness and ingredients of more than 1,700 SPF products, including sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms.
The new guide draws attention to the fact that the worrisome chemical oxybenzone is now found in only 6 percent of SPF products reviewed, a significant drop in its use as an ingredient. Growing Food and Drug Administration concerns about oxybenzone as a hormone disruptor and its ability to penetrate skin easily have led in part to the sharp decrease in its use as an active ingredient.
Oxybenzone is still allowed for use in sunscreens sold in most states and is now used in only 13 percent of non-mineral recreational sunscreens. Hawai’i issued a ban on oxybenzone in sunscreen, which took effect in 2021.
For more than a decade, EWG has called for further investigation into the safety of oxybenzone. In 2020, multiple studies confirmed that oxybenzone can act as an endocrine disruptor, increasing the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis. Traces of oxybenzone detected in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine and blood raised concerns about its harm to overall health.
“Oxybenzone is not the only worrisome chemical used in sunscreen,” said Emily Spilman, a program manager on EWG’s Healthy Living Science team. “We found that only 25 percent of sunscreens available on the market offer good broad-spectrum protection without troubling ingredients, which underscores the importance of stricter standards.
“This highlights the need for greater regulation and transparency in the industry to ensure consumer safety,” Spilman said.
The top-rated recreational sunscreens in EWG’s guide mostly contain mineral-based active ingredients, such as zinc oxide or a combination of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, since they have fewer health concerns and offer good sun protection. Zinc oxide provides good broad-spectrum protection and protection from both ultraviolet A, or UVA, and UVB rays, and it is stable in the sun.
Some sunscreen may prevent sunburn but won’t shield skin from harmful UVA rays that cause skin aging and possibly melanoma. EWG estimates that half of all sunscreens on the U.S. market would not pass European ingredient standards requiring stronger UVA protection.
“Informed consumers wanting safer and more effective products are driving market change in the absence of new sunscreens regulation by the FDA,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG.
“The perennially delayed action to update sunscreen regulations and the discrepancies in UVA protection show the urgent need for stricter ingredient safety standards, improved labeling and enhanced UVA protection to ensure effective sunscreens,” he said.
Inadequate UVA protection
Current FDA sunscreen regulations, which have remained largely unchanged since 2011, hinder the approval of new ingredients and block advancements in UVA protection. Proposed rule changes, such as improved safety data, enhanced UVA protection, limited SPF values and improved labeling, offer hope for much-needed transformation. These proposals are still pending finalization, leaving consumers uncertain about the level of protection provided by sunscreens.
In 2021, tests found that many sunscreens offer inadequate UVA protection, compared to the marketed SPF number on products. Exposure to UVA rays may increase the risk of skin cancer.
EWG scientists tested 51 sunscreens with SPF between 15 and 110. The average sunscreen reduced harmful UVA rays by a meager 24 percent.
Sunscreens tested often fell far short of the claims of protection against UVA rays that cause aging, immune harms and greater cancer risks. Most sunscreens also failed to reduce UVB rays, which are largely responsible for sunburn, to the amount expected from the labeled SPF.
The findings mean consumers may not only be burned because of misleading sunscreen labels but may also unintentionally increase their risk of skin cancer.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among U.S. adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.9 per 100,000 people, in 1975, to 22.4 per 100,000, in 2018. The reasons are unclear, but scientists have established that risk factors include family history, indoor tanning, fair skin, freckles, moles, UV radiation and severe sunburns.
“Young children are especially vulnerable to sun damage,” said Andrews. “Only a few blistering sunburns in childhood can double the chance a person will develop skin cancer over a lifetime.”
“Sunscreens are still important tools in reducing UV exposure – it’s just that some products are better than others,” he added.
EWG VERIFIED® Sunscreens
This year, EWG introduces the groundbreaking EWG VERIFIED® sunscreens category with 12 SPF products from ATTITUDE, Babo Botanicals and Beautycounter.
“The launch of EWG VERIFIED sunscreens reflects our commitment to empowering consumers and providing them with trusted, healthier options,” said Homer Swei, Ph.D., EWG's senior vice president of Healthy Living Science. “The mark on sunscreen packaging offers consumers a reliable and convenient way to identify top-performing products that meet EWG’s highest safety and efficacy standards.”
“This innovative addition empowers consumers by providing trusted options that meet or exceed international standards for safety and efficacy, revolutionizing the sunscreen market and instilling peace of mind when it comes to protecting themselves and their families,” he said.
“The decline in oxybenzone use is a positive shift toward mineral alternatives. It’s time for the sunscreen industry to prioritize health and well-being,” said Swei.
Sun safety tips
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. Sensible sun protection also includes protective clothing, like a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and shade.
When you’re outside, reapply sunscreen every two hours – even more if you’re sweating or swimming.
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 ultra high SPF values. The FDA has proposed to limit SPF values to 60+, but EWG recommends avoiding products with values over 50+.
- Avoid sprays. To reduce inhalation risk, avoid potentially inadequate protection and minimize possible benzene exposure, choose a lotion instead of a spray. These popular products make it difficult to apply an adequate and even coating on skin, especially in windy conditions. If you must use a pump or spray, apply it to your hands first, then wipe on your skin or your child’s to ensure uniform sun protection.
- Avoid intense sun exposure during its peak hours, between 10 a.m. and 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. Consumers also can visit the Skin Deep® database. 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.