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Most people who pick a sunscreen based on its sun protection factor, or SPF, value probably think preventing sunburn means they’ve also protected their skin from every kind of UV damage.
That’s often far from the truth.
Many sunscreens don’t provide adequate protection from UVA rays. Although higher-energy UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns and pre-cancerous DNA mutations, it’s lower-energy UVA rays that cause tanning and subtler damage. They penetrate skin tissue more deeply and are most responsible for generating free radicals – energized molecules that are highly reactive and can damage DNA and skin cells, advance skin aging, and cause skin cancer.
Sunscreens should be carefully formulated and tested to ensure they offer the strongest and most lasting protection from the results of UVA exposure, including free radical generation and immune system suppression. But products vary widely. The sunscreens with the best UVA protection are best at suppressing free radical formation, but many American sunscreens don’t offer that quality of UVA protection.
Avobenzone and zinc oxide are the two best UVA filters in American sunscreens, providing the desired protection from free radical formation and titanium dioxide is moderately effective at protecting against UVA rays. Yet even they are far from perfect. UV rays can break down avobenzone, although it’s almost always mixed with a stabilizer to slow down the process.
Skin damage also depends on whether the sunscreen is applied correctly. One study found that free radical generation dropped by 55 percent when the recommended thick coat of sunscreen was applied, but benefits were reduced in cases of a more typical coating (Haywood 2003). Other studies found sunscreen lowered free radicals by 50 to 75 percent, far less than the 95 to 99.9 percent reduction in sunburn risk (Haywood 2012).
European sunscreens seem to provide greater free radical protection, because they can contain superior UVA filters. In tests, 12 European sunscreens averaged a free radical protection factor of 13. However, the two that most resemble U.S. products offered much less UVA and free radical protection (Wang 2011).
Many sunscreens currently on the US market contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant chemicals that can boost SPF values without necessarily preventing UV rays from hitting the living skin cells the way an FDA-approved active ingredient in sunscreen would (Kobo 2015). Anti-inflammatories like botanical extracts from licorice, chamomile and aloe, for instance, reduce skin reddening (Couteau 2012). Antioxidants like vitamins E and C can be added to “quench” or absorb the free radicals caused by UV rays, but the forms or amounts they are added in may not be effective (Wang 2011a). Given the increasingly widespread use of these SPF boosters, EWG wrote to the FDA in 2016 urging it to investigate the protection they offer from other types of long-term skin damage.
To prevent skin damage and skin cancers effectively, American sunscreens should provide better UVA protection. This won’t happen until the FDA sets higher standards for UVA protection and approves modern sunscreen ingredients with superior UVA filtering and stability. Current FDA regulations require sunscreens to have a critical wavelength value of 370 nanometers for them to be considered “broad spectrum,” or UVA, protection. This amounts to setting the bar so low that nearly every sunscreen can meet the standard. However, in 2019, the agency recognized the skin damage consumers risk with UVA protection and proposed a more stringent test.
In the absence of truly protective regulations, consumers are in the worst possible position – likely to think their sunscreen is providing more protection than it is, then staying out in the sun longer, thereby increasing their risk of skin cancer and skin damage.