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EWG’s Sunscreen Guide:

Welcome to EWG’s 12th Annual Sunscreen Guide

Since EWG launched its annual sunscreen guide and its efforts to get industry and the Food and Drug Administration to make, market and regulate safer, more effective products, there have been significant improvements on behalf of consumers—and a few areas where more still needs to be done.

Since 2007, when EWG published its first Sunscreen Guide, many sun protection products sold in the U.S. have become safer and federal regulators have cracked down on some of the worst phony marketing claims. But our investigation of approximately 650 beach and sport sunscreens for our 12th annual guide found that serious concerns remain.

Two-thirds of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. And despite scant evidence, the government still allows most sunscreens to claim they help prevent skin cancer.

Over the course of 12 years, EWG has uncovered mounting evidence that one common sunscreen chemical, oxybenzone, poses a hazard to human health and the environment. It is an allergen and a hormone disruptor that soaks through skin and is measured in the body of nearly every American.

In laboratory experiments, oxybenzone caused damage and deformation of coral by acting as an endocrine disruptor and damaging the DNA of coral larvae. Oxybenzone has also been shown to cause coral bleaching and even coral death. Legislators in Hawaii recently passed a bill, not yet signed into law by the governor, to ban the sale of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen due to its effects on marine life. Outdoor supplies retailer REI also vows to ban the use of oxybenzone in products sold in its co-ops by fall 2020.

Despite these actions, oxybenzone is still used widely on the market. The ingredient is in two-thirds of non-mineral sunscreens we assessed. Mainstream sunscreen brands include oxybenzone in most of their products, including those marketed to children. For people who want to avoid oxybenzone, this year’s guide identifies 211 top-rated mineral sunscreens and 23 non-mineral products that don’t use it.

We’re making a renewed push to shift the market away from oxybenzone. Join us in demanding companies go oxybenzone-free by 2020.

Here are some other significant trends from the last 12 years:

Since 2007, we have found a dramatic increase in the availability of mineral-only sunscreens, more than doubling from 17 percent of products to 41 percent in 2018. Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to rate well in our analysis. They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation – UVA and UVB – and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives.

When we began this work in 2007, there were no legal requirements that sunscreens shield against lower-energy UVA rays. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration enacted the first rules that required sunscreens advertising “broad spectrum” to pass a test, and nearly all sunscreens sold today include an ingredient that filters UVA rays. However, the FDA set the bar too low and most products pass the agency’s test without offering adequate UVA protection.

We remain concerned that a common sunscreen additive, a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, can harm skin. Government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight.

In 2010, when EWG first voiced concerns about retinyl palmitate, nearly 40 percent of the products we reviewed contained vitamin A. Since then, the use of this troubling ingredient has dropped by more than half, and of the products we surveyed for this year’s guide, it was in only about one in eight.

In 2011, the FDA set new rules that removed some of the most egregious false marketing claims, like “waterproof” and “sweatproof,” from sunscreen labels. But the FDA allowed most sunscreens to continue to claim that they play a role in preventing skin cancer.

There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces the risk of cancer, particularly for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and a multi-billion-dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades.

When the FDA proposed its standard for broad spectrum protection, we estimated that 80 percent of products would pass the new test without any changes to their formulations. The European Union sets a higher bar, requiring UVA protection to rise in proportion with SPF, which reflects only UVB protection. This year, we estimate that nearly every sunscreen we reviewed passes the FDA test, but that about half of them would not offer enough UVA protection to be sold in Europe.

UVA protection will not improve until the FDA approves the use of modern ingredients that provide stronger protection. In 2014, President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a law to speed the review of new ingredients, which have the potential to dramatically improve the UV protection of American sunscreens. It allows the FDA to more efficiently review ingredients that are used successfully on the international sunscreen market. The FDA has requested more data from sunscreen companies about the safety and effectiveness of all pending active ingredients.

People select products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that bigger numbers are better. In reality, higher SPF ratings don’t necessarily offer greater protection from UV-related skin damage, especially UVA damage, and may lead users to spend too much time in the sun.

In 2011, the FDA determined that high SPF claims may be inherently misleading, and proposed to join most industrialized nations in capping SPF values at 50+. But the agency hasn’t finalized the rule, and the inflated SPF values for American sunscreens keep climbing: In 2007, only 10 sunscreens in our guide claimed SPF 70 and higher. This year we found 52 products making such claims, including 13 products advertised as SPF 100 or higher.

Sunscreen sprays are popular with consumers. In 2007, just under one-fifth percent of the sunscreens we reviewed were sprays; this year, about 30 percent were.

But EWG is concerned that these products pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin. In 2011 the FDA raised similar concerns. The agency indicated it would ban sprays unless sunscreen companies submitted more data to prove that spray sunscreens protect skin and pose no safety hazards. Until companies can provide the data to negate these concerns, EWG cautions people to avoid these products.


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About the ratings

EWG provides information on sunscreen products from the published scientific literature, to supplement incomplete data available from companies and the government. The ratings indicate both efficacy and the relative level of concern posed by exposure to the ingredients in this product - not the product itself - compared to other sunscreens. The ratings reflect potential health hazards but do not account for the level of exposure or individual susceptibility, factors which determine actual health risks, if any. Methodology | Privacy Policy | Terms & Conditions

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