Sunscreen helps reduce the risk of sunburns and long-term skin damage, but only one in four products offers adequate protection and does not contain worrisome ingredients, according to an EWG analysis of more than 1,800 sunscreens.
EWG’s analysis is part of our Guide to Sunscreens, updated this year, which offers crucial tips on the best sunscreens for children, details on which products provide the best SPF protection, information on ingredients of potential concern and more. As long as regulations governing the safety and efficacy of sunscreens fall short, consumers need to be careful when choosing their products.
Independent tests of sunscreens often do not equate to the SPF value found on the front of sunscreen bottles. Most consumers are drawn to sunscreens with higher SPFs, but these can create a false sense of sun safety and potentially weaken protection against ultraviolet, or UV, radiation.
Many people believe that an SPF 100 sunscreen offers twice the protection of an SPF 50 product, but the difference is negligible – when properly applied, SPF 50 will block 98 percent of UV rays, whereas SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. EWG’s guide details the variability in SPF, offering advice about what we think are the best sunscreen products for your daily use.
Some international sunscreen companies have had to relabel or reformulate their products after test results by a U.S. laboratory were not confirmed by independent labs. INCIDecoder, which provides information on product formulations, notes that a few sunscreen brands had to suspend sales of some of their products last year following such tests.
Yet when sunscreens are used properly and their SPF claims are true, they work to help protect against harm from the sun. A study of Londoners vacationing in the Canary Islands found that, when used correctly, an SPF 15 sunscreen provided sufficient sunburn protection.
Protect yourself with your daily routine
Given the lack of face-to-face interaction during the pandemic, many people have chosen to pare down their skincare and makeup routines. But as the U.S. opens up, and people gather outside this summer, it is important to use good sun safety practices that include a safe and effective sunscreen product as part of your daily routine.
If you wear makeup, you should regularly apply sunscreen rather than rely solely on makeup with SPF for sun protection. Studies show that people typically apply only one-fourth to two-thirds of the sunscreen required to achieve the labeled SPF rating. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends evenly applying an ounce of sunscreen – about a palmful – to all exposed skin. If you rely solely on concealer, blush and other makeup products with SPF to achieve sun protection, you’ll need to apply a lot more than you’d otherwise use, which might not give you the look you want.
The scientific community is divided about whether it’s better to apply sunscreen or makeup first. Researchers recently reported in the journal Skin Research and Technology that applying makeup on top of an adequate layer of sunscreen led to improved UV protection. If you take that approach, let your sunscreen dry fully before applying makeup.
Reapplying sunscreen often is also crucial, whether you will be under the sun for several hours or going outside for only short periods during the day. Follow the American Cancer Society’s advice to apply sunscreen early, regularly and generously – 15 minutes before going outside and at least every two hours thereafter.
Depending on the type of makeup you use, you can reapply sunscreen on top with several different techniques. However, be extra vigilant with prolonged sun exposure and remember that you may want to wash your face and reapply sunscreen to a clean, dry base.
Inhalation concerns with sunscreens
Although spray sunscreens might seem to be the most convenient option for a quick touch-up, there are health concerns with some spray and powder SPF products.
For years EWG has examined the use of spray and powder sunscreens, which may pose inhalation risks and be especially harmful to sensitive young lungs. With spray and powder SPF products, it is difficult to apply a layer of sunscreen that is thick and uniform enough to ensure proper UV protection. For this reason, in 2019 the Food and Drug Administration proposed a rule to prohibit the sale of powdered sunscreens, though it never finalized it. EWG recommends choosing a sunscreen lotion or stick you can gently rub directly onto your skin.
Sunscreen is important – but only one form of sun protection
There are many types of sunscreen, and it can be overwhelming to find the product that’s best for you. If you don’t know where to start, check out our best daily-use SPF list to find a product that offers adequate sun protection without ingredients linked to health harms.
Finally, remember that sunscreens should be your last line of defense against the sun’s rays. You should take additional steps this summer and beyond to protect yourself outdoors. Other ways to reduce your sun exposure include covering up with a hat, clothing and sunglasses, and staying in the shade – or making your own – whenever possible.
Visit EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens for more sun safety tips.