Since 2007, when Environmental Working Group (EWG) published its first Sunscreen Guide, many sun protection products sold in the U.S. are safer and federal regulators have cracked down on some of the worst phony marketing claims. But their investigation of more than 750 beach and sport sunscreens for their tenth annual guide found that serious concerns still remain.
Almost three-fourths of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. And despite scant evidence, the government still allows most sunscreens to claim they help prevent skin cancer.
In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration set new sunscreen rules that took some of the most egregious false marketing claims, like “waterproof” and “sweatproof” off product labels. But FDA allowed most sunscreens to claim that they play a role in preventing skin cancer. There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces cancer risk, particularly for melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and a multi-billion dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades.
Sunscreen Guide: Significant Trends
The increase in mineral-only sunscreens:
Since 2007, EWG found a dramatic increase in the availability of mineral-only sunscreens, doubling from 17 percent of products to 34 percent in 2016. Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to rate well in their analysis: They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives.
Misleading sky-high SPF values:
Consumers select products based on their SPF, or sunburn protection factor, and mistakenly assume that bigger numbers are better. In reality, higher SPF ratings don’t necessarily offer greater protection from other UV-related skin damage and may lead users to spend too much time in the sun.
In 2011, FDA determined that high SPF claims may be “inherently misleading,” and proposed to join most industrialized nations in capping SPF values at 50+. But it hasn’t finalized the rule, and the inflated SPF values for American sunscreens keep climbing: In 2007, only 10 sunscreens in our guide claimed SPF 70 and higher. This year we found 61 products making such claims, including 15 products advertised as SPF 100 or higher.
Increase in UVA filter use
Over the past decade dermatologists and skin cancer researchers have concluded that good sunscreens should not only guard against sunburn, primarily caused by UVB rays, but also protect people from lower-energy UVA rays. In 2007, only one in six products in our guide included an active ingredient that filters UVA rays. In 2011, FDA set the first rules for testing broad spectrum protection, and this year nearly every product in our database contains an ingredient known to filter UVA rays.
Yet FDA’s broad spectrum rule is still too lax. When it was proposed EWG estimated that 80 percent of products would pass the new test without any change to their formulation. Europe sets a higher bar, requiring UVA protection to rise in proportion to SPF, which reflects only UVB protection. This year, we estimate that nearly every sunscreen we reviewed passes the FDA test, but that about half of them would not offer enough UVA protection to be sold in Europe.
UVA protection will not improve until FDA approves the use of modern ingredients that provide stronger protection. In 2014, President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a law to speed the review of new ingredients, which have the potential to dramatically improve the UV protection of American sunscreens. It allows FDA to more efficiently review ingredients that are used successfully on the international sunscreen market. FDA has requested more data from sunscreen companies about the safety and effectiveness of all pending active ingredients.
Despite concerns, sprays still dominate the market
Sunscreen sprays are popular with consumers. In 2007, just under 20 percent of the sunscreens we reviewed were sprays; this year, just under 30 percent were.
But EWG is concerned that these products pose an inhalation risk and may not provide a thick and even coating on skin. In 2011, FDA raised similar concerns. The agency indicated it would ban sprays unless sunscreen companies submitted more data to prove that spray sunscreens protect skin and pose no safety hazards. Until companies can provide the data to negate these concerns, EWG cautions people to avoid these products.
EWG remains concerned that a common sunscreen additive, a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, can harm skin. Government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight.
In 2010, when EWG first voiced concerns about this additive, nearly 40 percent of the products we reviewed contained Vitamin A. Since then, the use of this troubling ingredient in sunscreens has dropped by more than half, contained in only 16 percent of the products we surveyed for 2016.
Oxybenzone is a common UV filter in sunscreen. It is a hormone disruptor and allergen. Sampling by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection has detected it in the urine of 97 percent of Americans. Despite emerging concerns, the sunscreen industry continues to rely heavily on oxybenzone as an active ingredient: it was in 70 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens we evaluated for this year’s guide.