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EWG’s Sunscreen Guide:

Welcome to EWG’s 11th Annual Sunscreen Guide

Since 2007, when EWG published its first Sunscreen Guide, many sun protection products sold in the U.S. are safer and federal regulators have cracked down on some of the worst phony marketing claims. But our investigation of more than 880 beach and sport sunscreens, 480 moisturizers and 120 lip products with SPF for our 11th annual guide found that serious concerns remain.

Almost three-fourths 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.

Here are some other significant trends from the last 11 years:

Since 2007, we have found a dramatic increase in the availability of mineral-only sunscreens, doubling from 17 percent of products to 34 percent in 2017. 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 FDA enacted the first ever sunscreen rules which required sunscreens advertising “broad spectrum” to pass a test, and nearly all sunscreens sold today include an ingredient that filters UVA rays.

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 this additive, nearly 40 percent of the products we reviewed contained vitamin A. Since then, the use of this troubling ingredient in sunscreens has dropped by more than half, and it was in only 14 percent of the products we surveyed for 2017.

In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration set new sunscreen rules that removed some of the most egregious false marketing claims, like “waterproof” and “sweatproof,” from product labels. But the FDA allowed most sunscreens to claim that they play a role in preventing skin cancer. There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces cancer risk, 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.

The FDA’s broad spectrum rule is still too lax. When it was proposed, EWG estimated that 80 percent of products would pass the new test without any changes to their formulations. Europe 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 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 69 products making such claims, including 13 products advertised as SPF 100 or higher.

Sunscreen sprays are popular with consumers. In 2007, just under 20 percent of the sunscreens we reviewed were sprays; this year, just under 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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