By Emily Main
When you slather on sunscreen, you'd like to think that it's protecting you against sunburns and skin cancer, right? That's not always the case in the United States, where lax guidelines and regulations have made sunscreen your weakest tool in the fight against ever-increasing rates of melanoma, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).
For the seventh year in a row, EWG has released its sunscreen ratings, based on the findings of the group's research scientists and public health experts, who analyze the safety and efficacy of 1,400 sunscreens, lip balms, makeup products, and lotions with SPF.
What did they find? Just 25 percent of those products offer safe sun protection against both UVA and UVB rays without also being littered with unsafe sunscreen ingredients, says Nneka Leiba, EWG's deputy director of research and the lead researcher on the project. "Sunscreen awareness may be improving, but overall sun protection is not," she says.
A big part of the problem, she says, is that regulation on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is weak. In December, the agency finally instituted new rules that will require that claims of "broad-spectrum"—meaning that products protect against both sunburn-causing UVB rays and skin-cancer-causing UVA rays—be independently tested and validated. Also, the use of the terms "waterproof" and "sweatproof" will be banned. But, says Leiba, "the bar they set was so weak that most products didn't have to change formulations in order to meet those requirements." Ninety percent of the products sold in the U.S. meet the new FDA guidelines, she adds, but just 50 percent of U.S. products would pass muster under Europe's much stricter safety rules.
Why Sunscreens Can't Keep You Safe
That's not all. American shelves are littered with products that lull users into a false sense of security, don't provide full coverage, and expose people to toxic chemicals that could actually be increasing their risk of skin cancer. EWG's report highlighted a bunch of those products, and here are their picks for the six worst kinds of sunscreen:
#1: Sunscreens with Retinol
Retinol, or vitamin A, can increase the risk of tumors on sun-exposed skin, according to a number of government tests. Yet it's commonly added to sunscreens and lotions owing to its antiaging effects. "That's especially concerning in light of the fact that melanoma rates have risen 2 percent each year over the past decade, says Leiba. It's become such a risky ingredient that the Canadian government is considering requiring warning labels on vitamin A–containing products that say the ingredient "may increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun and particularly the possibility of sunburn. Please limit sun exposure while using this product and for a week afterwards." Exactly what you want to read on a bottle of sunscreen, right?
#2: Sunscreens with SPFs Higher Than 50
SPF is a measure of protection against sunburn-causing UVB rays only, not of cauncer-causing UVA rays, and UVA protection in these products is poor, according to EWG's analysis, says Leiba. High-SPF products also lull you into a false sense of security. "Because they protect you longer from UVB rays, you may not get burned, which you associate with time to go inside," she adds. Thus, you stay outside longer and absorb too much skin-damaging UVA. The FDA has proposed rules that would prohibit companies from advertising SPFs higher than 50, which they call "inherently misleading," but those rules have never gone into effect.
#3: Sunscreens that Contain Oxybenzone
Oxybenzone is a chemical sunscreen agent that gets absorbed by your skin. The problem with it, says Leiba, is that it penetrates the skin very easily and gets absorbed into your bloodstream. Once inside your body, it mimics the hormone estrogen, which, over the long term, can lead to reproductive issues and thyroid problems, and autism researchers suspect that the chemical is also neurotoxic. More than half the products EWG analyzed contained oxybenzone, and government studies have detected the ingredient inside the systems of 96 percent of Americans. Read labels carefully to avoid it. It can also be listed as benzophenone or benzophenone-3.
#4: Sunscreens in Powder, Spray-on, or Towelette Form
Anything you could potentially inhale shouldn't be saturated in sunscreen chemicals that act like hormones in your body, EWG warns. Plus, "when you're spraying on sunscreen, it's hard to tell if you're getting the amount of coverage you need," Leiba says. The same goes with powders and towelettes. In fact, this is the last summer you'll see either product on store shelves. The FDA has said that it won't allow powder- or towelette-based sunscreen products to be sold after the end of 2013.
3 Surprising Skin Cancer Risks
#5: Sunscreen/Bug Repellent Combos
They're unnecessary and potentially harmful. Bug repellents can contain effective but potentially irritating chemicals that you need only apply once a day, whereas sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours. Beyond that, you don't need them, says EWG. Unless you're on a long hike in the wilderness, bugs are mostly pesky at dawn and dusk, not during the heat of the day when UV rays are strongest.
#6: Moisturizers, Lip Balms, and Makeup with SPF
Fewer than 10 percent of these meet EWG's criteria for providing UVA and UVB protection, and for that matter, most products on the market can't claim "broad-spectrum" protection as defined by the FDA. So any claims that they can prevent skin damage from sunlight are overstated, EWG has found. Plus, most women apply these just once a day, and any protection they do offer will last only a few hours. If you really like those products, see below.
Better Bets for Safer Sunscreen
What sunscreens should you buy? There are some good ones out there, EWG found. When they look at sunscreen effectiveness and safety, the EWG researchers use models to determine how much of a sunscreen you absorb and how quickly it breaks down when exposed to sunlight. Also, they analyze ingredients for any, like vitamin A, that raise red flags.
Their 2013 sunscreen database highlights the most effective products with the fewest harmful ingredients, and breaks them down into the following categories:
• Beach & sport sunscreens
• Moisturizers with SPF
• Lip balms with SPF
• Makeup with SPF
MOST importantly, realize that sunscreen should always be your THIRD line of defense against skin cancer and sunburns, recommends EWG, the American Academy of Dermatology, and the World Health Organization—among many other advocacy groups. The first should be to seek shade or stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV radiation is strongest. The second, to cover up with hats, long sleeves, and long pants. Once you have these defenses in place, then cover your exposed skin with sunscreen.