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Sunscreen: How it works, what it means

  • Which sunscreens are best and why?
  • What does the EWG VERIFIED® Sunscreen mark mean?
  • How do sunscreens work?
  • Which sunscreens are best for children?
  • How much sunscreen is enough, and how often should I reapply it?
  • Is a good sunscreen all I need to be safe in the sun?
  • What does SPF mean?
  • How high an SPF should I use?
  • I am using a high-quality sunscreen with SPF 50, so why do I still get burned?
  • What does broad spectrum mean?
  • Will sunscreen protect me from cancer and wrinkles?
  • Should I use sunscreens if I’m concerned about Vitamin D deficiency?
  • Should I be concerned about vitamin A in my sunscreen?
  • Why shouldn’t I use sunscreen sprays and powders?
  • What about products that combine sunscreen with bug repellent?
  • What should I do to protect my pet from the sun?
  • How do I remove sunscreen?
  • Doesn’t the government ensure that sunscreens protect us?
  • Which products are listed under EWG’s Baby and Kids category?

  • Which sunscreens are best and why?

    The ideal sunscreen would block most ultraviolet A and B rays with active ingredients that do not break down in the sun, so the product remains effective. It would also contain only active and inactive ingredients proven completely safe for both adults and children. No sunscreen on the U.S. market meets all these criteria, and consumers have no simple way to know how well a particular product stacks up. That’s why EWG created this guide to safer and more effective sunscreens.

    What does the EWG VERIFIED® Sunscreen mark mean?

    The EWG VERIFIED™ mark on a product indicates that the product meets EWG’s strictest standards for transparency and health.

    ✔ Avoids EWG’s Ingredients of concern. EWG VERIFIED products cannot contain any ingredients on EWG’s “Unacceptable” list, which includes ingredients with health, ecotoxicity and/or contamination concerns.

    ✔ Full transparency. EWG VERIFIED products must meet EWG’s standards for ingredient disclosure on the label; products with the VERIFIED mark are made by manufacturers that have been fully transparent with EWG about that product’s ingredients, including fragrance ingredients.

    ✔ Good manufacturing practices. EWG VERIFIED product manufacturers must develop and follow current good manufacturing practices to further ensure the safety of their products.

    EWG VERIFIED Sunscreens also takes into account additional factors. Sunscreens that carry the mark cannot:

    • Be in an aerosol or powder form, given the increased inhalation risk. 
    • Have an SPF value below 15 or higher than 50.
    • Include marketing claims banned by the FDA, such as “sunblock,” “sweatproof,” or “waterproof.”

    How do sunscreens work?

    The active ingredients in sunscreens primarily absorb but also reflect or scatter UV radiation, reducing the amount of sunlight that hits the skin. Sunscreens typically contain a combination of chemicals known to protect effectively against certain wavelengths of UV light. Some ingredients are more protective than others, as are some combinations of active ingredients.

    For years, manufacturers created sunscreens that were effective at screening out UVB radiation only – the type of rays that cause sunburn. More recently, scientists realized that UVA radiation is also harmful, and sunscreen manufacturers have shifted toward formulating sunscreens that provide some UVA protection.

    Many American sunscreens lack strong UVA protection, due to weak rules about UVA protection and the lack of approved ingredients. However, in 2019, the Food and Drug Administration proposed strengthening the UVA standards for SPF products, bringing them more in line with European sunscreens, which provide greater UVA protection in relation to SPF (FDA 2019). This proposal was withdrawn with passage of the first Covid-19 stimulus bill and must be reintroduced this year.

    Which sunscreens are best for children?

    Since kids are more vulnerable to sun damage and the harmful effects of chemical exposure, they should use a sunscreen rated highly for safety and one that offers effective protection from UVA and UVB radiation. If your child plans to swim and play in the water, look for a product labeled as providing 80 minutes of water resistance, the highest possible rating. Don’t buy sprays or products with bug repellent. Apply sunscreen generously before children go outside and reapply it often.

    Sunscreen is just one part of a sun-healthy lifestyle. Limiting sun exposure and wearing protective clothing are more important. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding sunscreen for children younger than six months, but if you can’t find protective shade and clothing, apply a minimal amount to exposed skin (AAP 2008), since young children don’t yet have protective melanin proteins.

    How much sunscreen is enough, and how often should I reapply?

    Follow the advice of the American Cancer Society and apply sunscreen early, regularly and generously – 15 minutes before going outside and at least every two hours thereafter. Reapply it after being in the water, sweating a lot or towel-drying, since these activities can remove sunscreen. (One study indicates that it’s best to reapply sunscreen after the first 15 to 30 minutes in the sun.)

    Plus, don’t skimp on sunscreen. Studies have shown that people typically apply only one-fourth to two-thirds of the amount required to achieve the product’s SPF rating. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying one ounce – about a palmful – evenly to all exposed skin.

    Is a good sunscreen all I need to stay safe in the sun?

    No. Sunscreen can provide only partial protection against the harmful effects of the sun. Limiting sun exposure and wearing protective clothing are more important ways to protect your skin from cancer and premature aging.

    Do not use sunscreen to prolong the time you spend in the sun, and be especially careful about exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense. Remember that UVA radiation doesn’t decline as much as UVB does when the sun is lower in the sky or when it’s overcast. UVA rays can even penetrate glass.

    Apply sunscreen generously 15 minutes before going outside and reapply it often – at least every two hours. Even the best sunscreen won’t work well if you don’t use it correctly.

    What does SPF mean?

    SPF stands for sun protection factor. It measures protection against sunburn, which is mostly caused by UVB rays. If your skin would normally burn after 10 minutes in the summer midday sun, for example, wearing a thick layer of an SPF 15 sunscreen would theoretically allow you to stay in the sun for 150 minutes (10 multiplied by 15) without burning. This message is unhelpful and inaccurate for consumers, because in real world conditions, sunscreens do not provide that level of protection. How much sunscreen you apply, your skin type, the nature of your activities in the sun (e.g., whether they involve water or sweat) and the time of day or intensity of sunlight may affect the level of protection.

    In addition, SPF ratings can be confusing or misleading. People rarely apply enough sunscreen to achieve the labeled SPF. The numbers do not reflect UVA protection. The FDA has warned that high-SPF products can create a false sense of security, contain higher concentrations of allergenic or irritating ingredients, and offer little additional sun protection (Branna 2011, Coelho 2020).

    How high an SPF should I use?

    Pick the SPF 50 or below that is appropriate for your skin type and expected time in the sun. The American Cancer Society recommends that people use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, whereas the American Academy of Dermatology suggests 30. EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens with SPFs higher than 50. UVA protection in American sunscreens maxes out at about 15 to 20, and higher SPF products will not offer proportionally higher protection. It is more important to apply sunscreen properly than to use one with a very high SPF. Most people put on only one-quarter to two-thirds as much as it takes to achieve the product’s SPF rating (Diaz 2012, Grosick 2004).

    I am using a high-quality sunscreen with SPF 50, so why do I still get burned?

    In theory, with the proper use of an SPF 50 sunscreen, you should be able to endure 50 times more sun exposure before burning than if you were not wearing sunscreen. But the SPF number is significantly higher than the level of protection provides in real-world usage outside. Additionally, sunscreens provide a different level of protection for different people, and how you use the product is also important.

    “Proper use” means applying sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before being exposed to the sun, applying an ounce or more over your entire body (that’s more than you think!) and reapplying it frequently – every two hours, and after swimming, sweating or toweling off. If you use a thin layer of sunscreen, an SPF 50 product will work more like SPF 7, and you’ll be more likely to come home from the beach with a sunburn.

    What does ‘broad spectrum’ mean?

    Many American sunscreens bear labels that boast “broad spectrum” protection, which implies protection from both UVA and UVB rays, but their UVA protection is often inadequate. The SPF number indicates how effectively a particular sunscreen protects skin from UVB rays and sunburn – the higher the number, the stronger the protection. But SPF values say little about UVA protection.

    The FDA’s rules for broad spectrum sunscreens are too weak. In 2018, EWG estimated that 99 percent of all sunscreens on the market could legally use the broad spectrum label, even though our estimate is that half could not be sold in Europe due to inadequate UVA protection.

    There are critical differences among sunscreens, but the labels don’t provide enough information. This is one of the primary reasons EWG created its sunscreen guide – to give consumers much-needed information about how effectively their sunscreen blocks both types of harmful radiation.

    Will sunscreen protect me from cancer and wrinkles?

    The principal forms of ultraviolet radiation – UVA and UVB – are known to contribute to skin cancer, wrinkling and skin aging. Controlled studies comparing sunscreen users and non-users find that sunscreens reduce the risk of squamous cell carcinoma but not basal cell carcinoma. The evidence about melanoma, the most dangerous skin cancer, is mixed. Despite greater sunscreen use and sun awareness, the rates of new melanoma cases among American men, women and children continue to climb. Most experts recommend that people use sunscreen but avoid relying on it exclusively to prevent sun damage (NCI 2007, van der Pols 2006, Green 1999). To get the most protection, use a product that filters out a significant proportion of both types.

    Should I use sunscreens if I’m concerned about vitamin D deficiency?

    Vitamin D is a fat-soluble hormone essential for growing and maintaining strong and healthy bones and supporting a strong immune system that helps protect against cancer. The body forms vitamin D precursors on the skin in the presence of sunlight. Many Americans have low vitamin D levels and may be at risk for health consequences.

    Physicians and scientists agree that people should use sun protection to prevent skin cancer and to reduce its toll on human health and health care costs (Gordon 2009). But strict sun protection can exacerbate vitamin D deficiency (Norval 2009, Reichrath 2009).

    The American Academy of Dermatology’s 2009 position statement on vitamin D concluded, “[T]here is no scientifically validated, safe threshold level of UV exposure from the sun that allows for maximal vitamin D synthesis without increasing skin cancer risk.” The academy recommends that people eat more foods naturally rich in vitamin D and vitamin D-fortified, and take vitamin D supplements (AAD 2009).

    Experts recommend getting vitamin D levels tested, particularly for anyone at risk of deficiency, and taking supplements, if necessary. Some foods contain vitamin D but not in amounts high enough to meet the daily requirement. Too much vitamin D can cause side effects, so take only a physician-recommended amount. The body regulates the amount of vitamin D it makes in the sun but cannot protect against excess vitamin D from supplements.

    Consult your physician to determine if you’re at risk of vitamin D deficiency. If you are, you may need regular or seasonal vitamin D supplements.

    Should I be concerned about vitamin A in my sunscreen?

    EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreen that contains vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate. Data from a study by scientists at the FDA and the National Toxicology Panel (NTP 2012) showed that retinyl palmitate may speed the growth of skin tumors when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight. Officials in Germany and Norway have cautioned that retinyl palmitate and other vitamin A ingredients in cosmetics could contribute to vitamin A toxicity when combined with excessive exposure to the sun (German BfR 2014, Norwegian SCFS 2012a). The evidence for these effects, though not definitive, is troubling.

    People who want to limit their exposure to vitamin A should avoid retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid, retinyl lineolate and retinyl acetate in sunscreens, lotions, lip products and other leave-on cosmetics until more information is available about their safety.

    Why shouldn’t I use sunscreen sprays and powders?

    EWG does not recommend powder and spray sunscreens, because of concerns about inhalation and inadequate sun protection. The FDA is proposing additional tests on spray sunscreens to verify the absence of small particles that may penetrate and damage the lungs (FDA 2019). EWG is especially concerned about the inhalation of nanosize and micronized zinc and titanium in aerosol products, as well as in powdered sunscreens and makeup products.

    Inhalation is a much more direct route of exposure to these compounds than skin penetration, which appears to be low in cases of healthy skin. If you want the benefits of a mineral sunscreen, choose a zinc- or titanium-based lotion. If you must use a pump or spray sunscreen, lower your inhalation risk by applying it to your hands and then apply it to the face with your hands.

    What about products that combine sunscreen with bug repellent?

    EWG recommends against using this type of product, and in 2019 the FDA proposed ending the sale of sunscreens with insect repellents. For starters, bugs may not be a problem during the hours that UV exposure peaks. Also, you may need to reapply sunscreen more frequently than bug repellent, or vice versa.

    It’s a particularly good idea to minimize the use of repellent chemicals on your face. Most worrisome of all, sunscreens often contain penetration enhancers, which help chemicals soak into the skin. Studies indicate that concurrent use of sunscreens with oxybenzone and DEET may lead to increased skin absorption of DEET and oxybenzone (Wang 2006, Wang 2014).

    How should I protect my pet from the sun?

    Animals can get sunburned and even get skin cancer, especially where they don’t have fur or hair. It’s best to avoid peak sun intensity – the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The American Animal Hospital Association cautions that only fragrance-free, pet-specific sun products should be used on animals. Cats’ grooming behaviors make them especially vulnerable to the risk of swallowing harmful ingredients in sunscreens (Rainey 2009).

    How do you remove sunscreen?

    Sunscreens break down in the sun and lose their effectiveness over time. Normal swimming, toweling and sweating also remove sunscreen. At the end of the day, warm water and soap are the best way to remove remaining sunscreen.

    Doesn’t the government ensure that sunscreens protect us?

    No. After a 35-year process of reviewing sunscreen safety and efficacy, the FDA has not yet finalized rules on sunscreen ingredient safety and product effectiveness.

    In February 2019, the FDA released its draft sunscreens final monograph, which, if implemented as is, would improve considerably the safety and effectiveness of products on the U.S. market. These updated regulations are expected to be reintroduced this year after they were withdrawn due to language in the first Covid-19 stimulus package that changed the regulations on over-the-counter drugs. The agency’s 2019 proposal would strengthen UVA standards for SPF products and cap SPF values at 60+. The proposal allows spray sunscreens to stay on the market, but manufacturers of these products would have to test the spray to ensure they don’t release small particles that could harm the lungs.

    The FDA currently allows American sunscreen manufacturers to claim their products are broad spectrum, even though many offer much poorer UVA protection than sunscreens sold with that label in other countries. The FDA’s own tests of products found that among those with similar SPF values, there are drastically different levels of UVA protection (Coelho 2020). Many of the products in our guide could likely not be sold in Europe because they provide inadequate UVA protection. Manufacturers in Europe voluntarily comply with a European Commission recommendation that all sunscreens provide meaningful UVA protection relative to their SPF. FDA rules do not bar products with sky-high SPFs that prevent sunburn while leaving users at risk of UVA-related skin damage.

    Which products are listed under EWG’s Baby and Kids category??

    Under the Baby and Kids category, we included products unambiguously marketed for use on babies and children, including those with the terms “baby,” “kids,” “kiddos,” “little” and/or “child/ren” in the product or brand name. We did not review product images or packaging that suggests use on babies and children when determining product category, as they are more ambiguous. We also did not include products marketed for use by the entire family.

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