Not all sunscreens are created equal. Thanks to more educated consumers, there's a rising demand for "natural" or "safe" sunscreen. But what does it actually mean? We're here to help you protect your skin from dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays and potentially dangerous chemicals found in sunscreens themselves. Now is the time to get informed and ask yourself: is my sunscreen safe?
To understand what's at stake in each tube, we spoke to various experts, including Tata Harper, the founder of her own safe and natural skincare line. Harper was inspired to learn about safe personal care items after her stepfather was diagnosed with cancer. She realized we all use products with potentially dangerous ingredients. Sunscreen is one of them.
"Make sure the sunscreen you're using isn't actually doing more harm than good."
"Sun protection is so important, but many sunscreens contain ingredients that are absorbed into the skin and have been linked to serious health risks, and their labels can be very misleading," Harper said. "You need to make sure the sunscreen you're using to protect yourself isn't actually doing more harm than good."
Ingredients to Avoid
According to the Environmental Working Group, an organization that researches and educates consumers about toxins in personal care products, there are specific ingredients you should avoid in sunscreens. The most important is oxybenzone. It is known as an "endocrine disruptor," which means it can interfere with our body's normal hormone functions. EWG says that oxybenzone can act like estrogen in the body, and it's been shown to alter sperm production in animals. It is also associated with endometriosis and allergic reactions. The skin absorbs oxybenzone in significant amounts when we use sunscreen that contains it, and a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) detected it in more than 96 percent of the US population. Other troubling studies have found traces commonly present in mothers' breast milk.
Octinoxate should also be avoided for similar reasons. Like oxybenzone, it is a hormone disruptor commonly found in sunscreen and readily absorbed into our skin with traces also found in mothers' milk. When in our systems, it may interfere with reproductive functions and also cause moderate rates of skin allergies.
Those aren't the only two offenders: EWG cautions against retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A often listed as an "inactive ingredient" in sunscreens. There is evidence that it could heighten sun sensitivity.
Harper said she also stays clear of methylisothiazolinone, explaining: "it is a preservative that the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety said could not be considered safe in any concentration in any leave-on product, but is still allowed in the US." Research has found that it could cause extreme skin allergies. Unfortunately, methylisothiazolinone is becoming increasingly popular in US-sold sunscreens. Other ingredients homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene make EWG's list of UV filters with moderate toxicity concerns, including organ system toxicity, allergies, skin irritation, or hormone disruption.
There is a debate about whether sunscreens approved by the FDA and Drug Administration (FDA) are safe, even when they include these ingredients. One debate is over retinyl palmitate, a synthetic form of vitamin A or retinol. Dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz, for example, isn't convinced that retinyl palmitate is dangerous. "The allegations of dangerous ingredients, like retinyl palmitate, have been proven to have no basis when subjected to peer review scientific studies," he said.
But EWG says its recommendation to avoid retinyl palmitate is based on results from a one-year skin cancer study performed by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "It found that experimental animals treated with retinyl palmitate cream and UV exposure had more skin tumors and lesions than animals treated with a cream that had no retinyl palmitate," explained Sonya Lunder, EWG's senior analyst and lead author of its sunscreens guide. She notes the agencies have initiated a follow up study to confirm and extend the findings. If you'd rather be safe than sorry, you'll want to avoid this ingredient until more conclusive evidence is found either way.
"Mineral sunscreens are a better alternative, since they create a physical barrier on the skin instead of absorbing."
In order to air on the side of caution, Harper and Lunder both suggest opting for for mineral sunscreens instead of chemical sunscreens. "Mineral sunscreens are a better alternative, since they create a physical barrier on the skin instead of absorbing," Harper explained. When shopping for mineral sunscreens, you should look for active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both will protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB radiation, without the added risks, as there is little evidence that the zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin.
And don't be fooled by fluffy words that actually don't have any regulatory meaning, including: hypoallergenic, gentle, or natural. The FDA has no control over who can use those labels. In general, Lunder suggests checking EWG's online database for individual product assessments — even for mineral sunscreens.
Quality Is a Concern
Now that you know what ingredients to avoid and which to look for, it's time to learn about quality. According to EWG, a good amount of sunscreens for sale in America are of low quality. But you might not even notice. First, it's important to understand that there are two types UV rays. UVB rays cause sunburns and skin cancers, while UVA rays cause wrinkles and other signs of aging, in addition to skin cancers. Poor-quality sunscreens may shield you from UVB rays without shielding you from UVA rays — meaning you'll be sunburn-free, but not fully protected.
Schultz has this advice: choose a sunscreen that's marked "with UVA protection" or "with broad-spectrum protection." To be labeled that way," he explains, "the manufacturer has demonstrated to the FDA that it will shield the skin from UVA rays and damage, when used as directed."
While the broad-spectrum label is a good place to start, EWG is also advocating for higher UVA standards from the FDA. Lunder explained: "Europe requires stronger UVA protection, and we estimate that half of all US sunscreens would not be sold in the EU." That includes those marked "broad spectrum." So if you want to be sure about full protection, extra research is required. EWG's sunscreen guide can help.
The Truth About SPF
SPF "or sun protection factor" is another label you need to pay attention to (obviously!) — but it may not be as simple as you think. SPF tells you how good a sunscreen is at blocking UVB rays. According to Consumer Reports, SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays specifically. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. And SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. There's little upside after that. "Anything above SPF 50 is really just a marketing gimmick and can lead you to stay in the sun longer than you should," explained Harper. She notes that the FDA is even considering banning high SPFs because they are so misleading. Ironically, people may be more likely to get a sunburn wearing SPF 100 than SPF 50, because they think they're getting more protection than they actually are.
Application Matters, Too
You can have the safest and most effective sunscreen, but if you don't apply it properly it's worthless. Schultz cautions that protection from a sunscreen is only theoretically unless you use as directed: "If you don't apply enough sunscreen and reapply sunscreen after swimming, sweating, and otherwise every three to four hours, you won't get the potential protection." Even if a sunscreen is marketed as "water resistant," you must still reapply after time in the water, especially after towel drying.
We've all had a lobster moment. When you end up turning bright red after a day in the sun — even if you wore sunscreen. Schultz explains that most sunscreen failures occur from not reapplying often enough — or from forgetting certain areas. He explains: "That means the tops of ears, back of neck, and tops of feet."
Dr. Amy Wechsler, another dermatologist, offers this tip: "Apply while looking in the mirror so no spots are missed and reapply every two hours or after swimming or exercise." Taking the extra care during application will also help you avoid looking like a ghost. Rub it in!
If reapplying is key, those spray sunscreens that make it easy are probably a good idea, right? Wrong. EWG recommends avoiding sprays, which don't provide a thick and uniform coating on skin and pose inhalation concerns. And of course, sunscreen is only one step in protecting yourself from sun damage. Be sure to wear shirts and pants while you're out in the sun, and stay in the shade during the afternoon. As Harper said, when it comes to protecting your face "the safest and most effective method of sun protection is still wearing a hat!" It's the perfect excuse to get that wide-brimmed Panama hat you've been eyeing.
Tools to Help You Shop
In time for Summer, EWG has released its guide to sunscreens for the 11th year in a row. Researchers analyzed 1,500 sunscreens, moisturizers, and lip balms that advertise sun protection and found that 73 percent of the products don't work well, or contain worrisome ingredients such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
To help you find the good among the bad, you can can search its extensive list of sunscreens that do make the cut. The researchers also created a helpful interactive graphic (click below) to help you decode each bottle you encounter.
To recap, here's what you'll want to look for when shopping for sunscreen:
- Zinc oxide
- Titanium dioxide
- Broad Spectrum or UVA protection
- SPF 30 or 50
- Retinyl palmitate
- Spray-on sunscreens
We've selected 10 safe sunscreens that get a safe rating of one or two from EWG. We've either tested them ourselves or they've been recommended by the experts we spoke to. With these, there's no need to be afraid of the sun — or your sunscreen.