Only 25 percent of sunscreens offer adequate protection, no worrisome ingredients

EWG releases its 2021 Guide to Sunscreens, with more than 1,800 SPF products rated for safety and efficacy

WASHINGTON – Today the Environmental Working Group released its 15th annual Guide to Sunscreens.

This year, EWG researchers rated the safety and efficacy of more than 1,800 products that advertise sun protection – including recreational sunscreens, daily-use SPF products and lip balms with SPF – and found that only 25 percent of the products reviewed offer adequate protection and do not contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a potential hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed by the body.

Although fewer products are now made with the active ingredient oxybenzone, which is detected in the body of nearly every American, it was still found in just under 40 percent of non-mineral sunscreens. This occurrence is down from 60 percent of the non-mineral SPF products just two years ago.

For 15 years, EWG has warned consumers about the health hazards linked to oxybenzone and other potentially harmful ingredients used in sunscreens,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG vice president of healthy living science. “It’s gratifying to continue to see companies reformulating their SPF products to move away from these concerning ingredients.”

In December 2020, the National Toxicology Program 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. And at the end of March, the European Commission, which reviews ingredient safety in Europe, published a final opinion finding oxybenzone unsafe for use at current levels. The European Commission’s preliminary opinion for homosalate also found it unsafe for use at current levels.   

“Yet again, the 2021 sunscreen market is flooded with products that use potentially harmful ingredients and provide poor UVA protection,” Leiba said. “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.

“U.S. sunscreens will not sufficiently improve until the Food and Drug Administration sets stronger regulations, restricts the use of harmful chemicals and approves new active ingredients that offer stronger UVA and UVB protection without concern of causing harm.”

The best-scoring recreational sunscreens on EWG’s list contain the mineral-based active ingredients zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or both, since they have fewer health concerns and offer good sun protection. Zinc oxide especially provides good broad-spectrum protection and protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and it is stable in the sun.

“The majority of sunscreen products sold in the U.S. don’t offer adequate protection against both UVA and UVB rays,” said Carla Burns, EWG senior healthy living science analyst, who works on the Sunscreen Guide. “But the good news is there are more than 400 SPF products that meet our rigorous standards.”

More than one in 10 of the sunscreens EWG reviewed claimed to have an SPF greater than 50+.

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 22.6 per 100,000 in 2017. Although the reasons for this trend are unclear, scientists have established that risk factors include family history, indoor tanning, fair skin, freckles, moles, ultraviolet radiation and severe sunburns. In early 2019, the FDA’s proposed sunscreen monograph stated that there is growing evidence linking UVA exposure to skin cancer.

“High SPF values are a marketing gimmick that could lead to overexposure to harmful rays,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, Ph.D., who works on the Sunscreen Guide. “High SPF numbers encourage misuse, particularly if a person spends more time in the sun without reapplying. Change in the U.S. sunscreen market is long overdue.”

EWG estimates that, because they provide inadequate UVA protection, most sunscreens sold in the U.S. would not be sold in Europe, which sets much more stringent UVA standards.  

Sunscreen products are capped at SPF 50 in Europe and Japan, and 50+ in Canada and Australia.

Sunscreen regulations have not been updated since 2011. Due to changes in the way over-the-counter-drugs are regulated, the FDA’s draft sunscreens monograph was withdrawn in the first coronavirus relief bill. The FDA is due to propose its long-awaited rules on sunscreens again this fall.

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 some tips for choosing better sunscreens and staying safe in the sun:

  • Avoid products with oxybenzone. This chemical is absorbed through the skin in large amounts and can affect hormone levels.
  • Stay away from vitamin A. 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 higher than 50+, which may not provide 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 a thick and uniform coating on skin. They also pose inhalation concerns.
  • Avoid intense sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 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 right at their fingertips. 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.

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