The Most Toxic Sunscreen (and Safer Options)

A 2014 Environmental Working Group guide IDs some safer sunscreen brands.

May 20, 2014
Sunscreen safety

UPDATE: See the most toxic sunscreens for 2015.

Safer sunscreen is readily available, and you don't have to do a lot of homework to find it, thanks to Environmental Working Group's (EWG's) 8th annual guide to sunscreens. The report comes at a time when melanoma—the most serious type of skin cancer—rates are on the rise.


"Many sunscreens offer inadequate protection from the sun and can contain toxic ingredients, to boot," says Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG. "This guide offers users much-needed, well-sourced information so they can make the right choices to protect themselves and their families."

A whopping two-thirds of sunscreens analyzed by EWG researchers either didn't work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients, including vitamin A and hormone-disrupting oxybenzone. Popular sunscreen brands like Rite Aid, Neutrogena, and Coppertone routinely landed in EWG's more dangerous sunscreen list, meaning millions of people are being exposed to questionable chemicals.

EWG found that in general, zinc- and titanium-based mineral sunscreens offer stable, lasting protection from UV rays without penetrating the skin the way their chemical counterparts do. The nonprofit does note, though, that wearing sun-protective clothing and staying in the shade during peak sun hours should also be included in any sun-protection program.

But when it is time to turn to sunscreen, there are much less toxic options on the table. Here are 9 of them…

Safer Sunscreen Picks

See the entire lists of safer beach and sport sunscreen and sunscreen with moisturizer at EWG's site.

Most Toxic Sunscreens

  • Well at Walgreens Sport Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 30, 50, and 90
  • Well at Walgreens Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 55 and 100
  • Vichy Capital Soleil Soft Sheer Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60
  • up & up Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 and 50
  • up & up Sport Sunscreen Continuous Spray, SPF 15 and 30
  • up & up Kids' Sunscreen Sun Stick, SPF 55
  • up & up Sport Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • up & up Kids' Sunscreen Continuous Spray, SPF 50
  • Trader Joe's Nourish Spray Sunscreen, SPF 50+
  • RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Daily Moisturizer, SPF 30
  • Rite Aid Wet Skin Kids Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 70
  • Rite Aid Ultimate Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 55, 70, and 85
  • Rite Aid Tugaboos Baby Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 50
  • Rite Aid Renewal Wet Skin Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 30 and 70
  • Rite Aid Renewal Sport Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 30 and 50
  • Rite Aid Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60, plus other Rite Aid sunscreen products
  • Philosophy miracle worker anti-aging lotion, SPF 50
  • Neutrogena Wet Skin Spray Sunscreen, SPF 30, 50, and 85+
  • Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula Daily Facial Lotion, SPF 15
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen, SPF 55, 70, 85
  • L'Oreal Invisible Protect Dry Oil Spray Sunscreen, SPF 50+
  • Hawaiian Tropic Silk Hydration Clear Mist Spray Sunscreen, SPF 15 and 30
  • Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 70+
  • CVS Age Renewal Firming & Hydrating Moisturizer, SPF 30

Check out EWG's 2014 Guide to Sunscreens to see a complete list of the safest sunscreens (the lower the number rating, the better) and the most toxic sunscreens (the higher the rating, the more toxic).

Safer Sunscreen Tips: Protect Yourself From Toxic or Ineffective Sunscreen

  • Avoid spray sunscreen. These popular, aerosolized sunscreens may seem convenient, but they may pose serious inhalation risks.
  • Don't trust sky-high SPF claims. SPF stands for "sun protection factor," referring only to UVB radiation protection. Since UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin, increasing your risk of wrinkles and skin cancer, super-high SPF claims could leave you with a false sense of protection. EWG recommends that consumers avoid products labeled with anything higher than SPF 50 and reapply sunscreen often, regardless of SPF.
  • Avoid oxybenzone. This chemical messes with your hormones—and not in a good way. It could also trigger allergic reactions. One study even linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women!
  • Don't rock retinyl palmitate. This anti-aging cream ingredient may react with the sun and speed the development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies.
  • Don't do double duty. Avoid combined sunscreen/bug repellent products. Since you don't need to apply bug repellent as often as sunscreen, you could be slathering yourself in unsafe levels of bug-repelling chemicals.
  • Avoid towelettes and powders. Some online retailers still stock and sell towelette and powder sunscreens despite FDA sunscreen rules barring the sale of these products. Powders increase your risk of lung damage through inhalation, too.
  • Say "no" to tanning oils. EWG says even if the oils contain sun protection, it's often inadequate or toxic.