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EWG’s 18th annual guide to sunscreens

Just one in four sunscreens out of 1,700 SPF products assessed in EWG’s 2024 Guide to Sunscreens meets our standards for ingredient safety and sun protection efficacy. Products sold in the U.S. continue to fall short because of ongoing Food and Drug Administration inaction.

The sunscreen industry has been stuck with a regulatory status quo from the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and people worried that computer systems would fail due to the Y2K bug. Companies continue to use product ingredients approved by the FDA in 1999, even though the agency has said there isn’t adequate safety data to use those ingredients. 

EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens helps families find the few products  made with safer ingredients and adequate sun protection. This includes EWG Verified® sunscreens that must be free of specific harmful substances and need to offer sufficient defense against potential harm from the sun’s ultraviolet A and B, or UVA and UVB, rays.

Consumers deserve access to more sunscreens that offer adequate UVA/UVB protection and aren’t made with problematic ingredients, but the FDA needs to act.

The FDA’s lagging standards 

The FDA could  overhaul the sunscreen industry and improve product safety and efficacy, but each year the opportunity passes them by.

In 2021, the agency proposed updates to its sunscreen regulations that would take some important steps, including requiring manufacturers to:

  • Improve UVA protection.
  • Limit SPF values to 60+.
  • Improve labeling.
  • Conduct additional tests for aerosol products. 
  • Provide more safety data about sunscreen ingredients or take them off the market.

The FDA has noted there  are insufficient data on many of the active ingredients used in sunscreens and that they cannot classify them as safe. 

Newer ingredients are available to companies outside the U.S. that are formulating sunscreens. This includes non-mineral ingredients that provide stronger UVA protection, which is important for the prevention of long-term sun damage. But those ingredients are barred from the U.S. until more is known about their safety. 

The FDA hasn’t finalized its proposed regulatory updates, leaving a stalemate between the agency and sunscreen manufacturers on ingredient safety tests. Some consumers are fed up with the product options available to them and instead have resorted to buying sunscreens made in other countries. 

International sunscreen standards

Sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter drug products in the U.S. but as cosmetics most everywhere else, leading to differing rules and products. 

Over the past year, one of the most common questions EWG received from reporters and consumers is whether people should buy sunscreens sold internationally. These products are widely available on Amazon, Temu and other online marketplaces. Some products listed on Amazon boast monthly sales over 20,000 bottles. 

But international sunscreens cannot legally be sold or bought in the U.S. It is also illegal to import these products into the U.S. even for personal use – they can be confiscated at customs, even though enforcement of individual purchases brought home from vacation is unlikely.

The FDA says it may consider more leeway for individual import of products like sunscreen that are not intended for treating a serious condition and have no known significant health risk.

Although better international standards can lead to improved sunscreens sold overseas, there are still some safe and effective products available in the U.S. Mineral-zinc-oxide-based products remain a top choice for sun protection, and again this year they make up most of the products EWG recommends in this guide.

Finding better U.S. sunscreens 

With so many different SPF products on the market, it can be challenging to find the ones that best suit your needs – and those that you should avoid.

Almost 300 products EWG reviewed contain oxybenzone, octinoxate or both. Both ingredients have been shown to be harmful to human health and aquatic life. Half of the products in our guide raise high allergies concerns, and almost 30 percent list the generic term “fragrance” on the label, which often refers to undisclosed mystery ingredients.  

This year, EWG is making it even easier to find the products you want, and the ones you want to avoid, by introducing new search features to the database. These new filters will help consumers more easily find stick, tinted and third-party-certified products while steering clear of ingredients of concern like octinoxate, fragrance and other allergens. 

Benefits of EWG Verified

In 2023, the EWG Verified program expanded to include recreational sunscreens for the first time. EWG Verified recognizes products that meet EWG’s strictest standards for your health, and for sunscreens this includes our high bar for a product’s efficacy.

Drawing upon nearly two decades of experience evaluating sunscreen products, EWG Verified sunscreens meet our strict standards for health and efficacy. These sunscreens cannot contain ingredients banned in the European Union or Canada, and ingredients are required to meet international government restrictions. 

Products that earn our mark must also meet higher UVA protection standards that exceed U.S. and European  requirements.

These products offer consumers peace of mind about sunscreens they use while the U.S waits for the FDA to clear the way for better ingredients and higher protection standards.

Since launching  the freshman class of products, the number of EWG Verified sunscreens has grown more than 275 percent, with 45 recreational sunscreens from eight brands now carrying the mark.

Make sun safety the priority

When choosing a sunscreen:

  • Avoid ingredients of concern and look for mineral products with zinc oxide. 
  • Don’t fall for high SPF labels.
  • Choose lotions and sticks over sprays. 
  • Use EWG’s list of top-rated sunscreens and EWG Verified to find the products that work best for you. 
  • Remember to reapply often.

Sunscreen should not be your only line of defense against the sun. You can also:

  • Cover up with shirts, hats, shorts and pants.
  • Find shade – or make it. 
  • Plan outdoor activities around the sun, avoiding peak hours between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are most intense.

About EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens

In 2007, EWG published its inaugural Guide to Sunscreens to provide consumers with information about sun protection products given the FDA’s failure to set modern safety standards for sunscreens.

We created the guide to spare consumers from navigating misleading market claims and complex ingredient lists, helping them find the SPF products that provide the best protection and are free of concerning ingredients.

Through its research, EWG discovered that not all products’ sun protection and ingredient health hazards are the same. Some are the cause of serious concern.

We continue to voice our concerns to the FDA, urging it to set standards that address these shortcomings. In the meantime, EWG continues to assess ingredients, upholding our rigorous standards in order to steer the sunscreen market toward safer choices. 

EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens empowers consumers with the information they need to make informed choices to reduce their risk of sun damage and skin cancer.