7 New Rules for Sunscreen

The Environmental Working Group's annual sunscreen ratings are showing improvements in sun-protection products, but a number of risks remain.

May 15, 2012

Not all sunscreens are created equally. A new report aims to clear up the confusion.

Updated: The Best (and Worst) Sunscreen for 2014


SPF or UVA? Broad-spectrum or waterproof? Sunscreens are probably the most confusing personal care product on the market. On the one hand, you have dermatologists telling you to apply them every time you step outside, but on the other, you hear reports that sunscreens don't prevent cancer and that the ingredients can be toxic.

For the sixth year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its ratings of more than 1,800 sunscreens, after analyzing them for the effectiveness and the toxicity of their ingredients. Why bother? Because no one is ensuring these products are either effective or safe before they go on the market, says Nneka Leiba, senior research analyst at EWG and one of the report's lead researchers. "All of these problems exist because of inadequate regulations by the Food and Drug Administration," she says.

Why Sunscreen Can't Keep You Safe

And that problem isn't going away anytime soon. After proposing new guidelines that would have made it easier for consumers to find effective sunscreens, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) backed off of those regulations last week, under pressure from industry groups who claimed they couldn't meet the June 2012 deadline. "The agency has caved to industry pressure every step of the way," Leiba says. "This delay just adds to the mounting pile of reasons why consumers need to consult with EWG's database before purchasing sunscreens this year."

That's exactly what sunburn-haters should do before heading outside this summer. In addition to providing recommendations for safer sunscreens (which you can see on EWG's website), the nonprofit's report highlighted seven rules you can apply when deciphering those confusing, sunny labels.

#1: Never rely on sunscreen as your sole, or even primary, sun protection.
"While we think sunscreen is an important part of any sun-protection program, sunscreen should not be used as a first line of defense," Leiba says. And nearly every other major public health organization in the world agrees. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Cancer Society all recommend using sunscreen on exposed skin after you've sought shade (or stayed inside during peak sun hours) and as a complement to donning sun-protective clothing to cover up. But sunscreens are so heavily marketed by cosmetic companies that we often forget to take those nontoxic—and proven safe—measures first.

Best Sun-Protective Clothing: Look for clothes that advertise a high UPF (it's like SPF but for clothes) and are protective because of a tight fabric weave, not chemicals.

The Best Hats for Summer

#2: Know the most toxic sunscreen ingredients.
The FDA allows 17 active ingredients in sunscreens, and Leiba says a good majority of them pose potential health hazards. Chemical ingredients can act as hormone disruptors, while nanoparticles of zinc and titanium dioxide can get into your bloodstream and cause brain and colon damage. "There is no perfect sunscreen," she says, "but there are better ingredients to choose from." After reviewing all the science on various chemical and mineral ingredients, EWG recommends always AVOIDING oxybenzone, a chemical sunscreen that would be listed under "active ingredients" on the label; vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate, a preservative linked to skin cancer; and added insect repellent, which you should apply just once, rather than every two hours, as you should with sunscreen.

Best Nontoxic Sunscreens: All the sunscreens that earned a 1 or 2 hazard rating on the new EWG sunscreen database are free of the ingredients above.

#3: "Broad-spectrum" is meaningless.
Before the FDA issued its proposed guidelines, any sunscreen company could slap the words "broad spectrum" on a product. When and if those new guidelines go into effect, companies have to prove to the FDA that sunscreens protect against both sunburn-causing UVB rays and cancer-causing UVA rays . "But the testing requirements are so weak that any product can say 'broad spectrum' and still not fully protect you from UVA rays," Leiba says. Ninety percent of sunscreens on the market now would meet the new rule without needing to be reformulated, she adds.

Best Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen Ingredients: Zinc, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, or Mexoryl SX, are the most reliable ingredients for both UVA and UVB protection, according to EWG. As for those pesky nanoparticles, Leiba says that, after reviewing the evidence, the group feels comfortable recommending products with nanoparticles because there's little evidence that they penetrate the skin. But there are plenty of non-nano sunscreens in the report, if you'd rather play it safe on that score.

#4: Use creams, not sprays, powders, or wipes.
Convenience usually comes at a cost, and that's particularly true with sunscreens. Sprays and powders pose an inhalation risk, Leiba says, and she says that the FDA has even started asking manufacturers to provide safety data showing that their products don't damage lungs. Not only that, but there's no way to know if they're protecting you. "With a lotion, you know when you've covered an area," she says. "With a spray, it's harder to tell if you have full coverage." Those handy towelettes, marketed for babies, aren't any better, she says. Though they may be saturated with sunscreen, there's never been any testing to show how much of that sunscreen actually transfers to your skin. In fact, Leiba says, the FDA is considering banning powders and towelettes altogether.

Best Easy-to-Apply Sunscreen: Sticks provide a good alternative for people who want an easy-to-apply sunscreen that isn't messy yet doesn't pose an inhalation risk. Loving Naturals Clear Sunscreen Stick SPF 30+ ($9.99; loving-naturals.com) got an "excellent" rating for UVA and UVB protection and for not breaking down when exposed to sunlight.

#5: Higher SPF doesn't always equal more protection.
As part of its proposed sunscreen labeling rules, the FDA is considering restricting the level of SPF that manufacturers can advertise, making SPF 100 illegal, for instance. Such high SPFs lull people into a false sense of security. But manufacturers are still marketing products with outlandish SPFs—that don't really provide added protection. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, an SPF 15 product blocks 93 percent of UV rays, while an SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. No product will block 100 percent, the organization notes, so the amount of added protection you get from a product labeled SPF 75 or 100 is minimal.

Best High-SPF Sunscreen: The FDA is currently considering making 50+ the highest advertisable SPF. If you want the most protection you can get, go with Thinkbaby Sunscreen SPF 50+ ($15.99; thinkbaby.co), good for kids and adults alike. It got "excellent" ratings both for UVA and UVB protection and stability.

#6: Children's sunscreens aren't always the best for sensitive skin.
If you grab a bottle of baby or kid's sunscreen because you have sensitive skin, or are using it on your child, flip it over and read the ingredients. Leiba says that for this year's test, the EWG researchers compared the labels on baby sunscreens with their related adult versions, and 16 brands listed the exact same ingredients on both the children's sunscreen and the adult's. In general, she says, baby sunscreens do contain the safer, more effective active ingredients, but don't assume they always do. "Sometimes, putting the word 'baby' on a label is just a marketing gimmick," she cautions.

Best Sunscreen for Kids or Sensitive-Skin Adults: True Natural Broad Spectrum Baby & Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50 ($19.95; truenaturegroup.com) got "excellent" ratings for UVA and UVB protection and stability.

#7: Your makeup is NOT an effective sunscreen.
Playing to women who want to get double duty out of their makeup, more and more cosmetic companies are adding sunscreen ingredients to everything from foundation to lipstick. But it's ineffective protection, Leiba says. You (hopefully!) reapply regular sunscreens every two hours, but when you apply makeup with an SPF, you're applying it just once in the morning and assuming it's protecting you all day, she says. The same rule goes for moisturizers and body lotions that contain SPF.

Best Cosmetic Sunscreen: For those who do like a moisturizing sunscreen, 100% Pure's Organic Pomegranate Antioxidant Hydration SPF 20 ($26, 100percentpure.com) rated "excellent" for every category, including UVA protection and stability when exposed to sunlight, per EWG. Just be sure to apply it every two hours to stay protected.

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