If you’re planning to spend summer days by the pool or beach-side, you’ll likely reach for a bottle of sunscreen to prevent you from becoming red and crispy. These products are not all created equal, however, and it can be difficult to know what to purchase when you’re staring at the multitude of options available at the supermarket. Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has put out a list of the best and worst sunscreens every year since 2007 to help you decide.
This year, nearly ¾ of the products EWG examined offered inferior sun protection, or contained ingredients that can harm humans and/or the environment. One of those ingredients is oxybenzone, an endocrine-disrupting chemical which has also been linked to coral reef deaths.
The group says it has discovered a dramatic increase in the availability of mineral-only sunscreens, up from 17% of products in 2007 to 34% in 2017. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide products typically get positive reviews, as they are more stable in sunlight, offer a better balance between protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and rarely contain potentially harmful additives.
EWG says on its website that it remains concerned that a common sunscreen additive, a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, can harm skin. It notes that government test data shows more skin tumors and lesions on animals treated with retinyl palmitate. Fortunately, the use of this potentially hazardous ingredient in sunscreen has decreased greatly – from nearly 40% of products in 2007, to just 14% of products reviewed in 2017.
It should be noted that EWG considers sunscreen a last resort, behind the following protective measures:
- Wearing clothing, which can reduce your risk of suffering a nasty sunburn by 27%;
- Planning your day around the sun – the sun is lower in the sky and there is less of a burn risk early in the morning and in the late afternoon;
- Finding or making shade, which can reduce the risk of multiple burns by 30%;
- Sunglasses, which protect the eyes from UV rays;
- Checking the UV index.
Of course if you know that you’ll be out in the sun for any extended period of time, I’d still recommend using sunscreen over turning into a lobster and suffering from UV damage.
- Oxybenzone is the EWG’s biggest concern health-wise, and for good reason. The endocrine disruptor is pervasive and has been detected in nearly every American. It has also been detected in breast milk. Oxybenzone is associated with relatively high rates of skin allergy.
- Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate) has been detected in breast milk, is an endocrine disruptor, and has been shown to alter animals’ behavior and thyroids in studies. It is associated with moderate rates of skin allergy.
- Homosalate has been found in mothers’ milk; disrupts estrogen, androgen, and progesterone; and leaves behind toxic breakdown products.
- Octocrylene has shown up in breast milk, and is associated with relatively high rates of skin allergy.
A High SPF Doesn’t Always Mean More Protection
If you’re light-haired and fair-skinned, you should not assume that a higher SPF sunscreen offers significantly more protection than a lower one. EWG writes on its website:
“Theoretically, applying sunscreen with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of 100 would allow beachgoers to bare their skin 100 times longer before suffering a sunburn. Someone who would normally redden after 30 minutes in the midday sun could stay out for 50 hours.
But for high-SPF sunscreens, theory and reality are two different things. Many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and as a result may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF values.”
An SPF 100 product should – theoretically – provide twice as much protection as an SPF 50 sunscreen. But, in truth, the difference is negligible. A sunscreen with an SPF of 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays, while an SPF 100 blocks 99%. If you apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or a little more , you should be adequately protected from developing a sunburn, no matter how fair you are.
High-SPF products may come with greater health risks, as well. These sunscreens require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals than low-SPF sunscreens, and these chemicals have been linked to tissue damage and potential hormone disruption, not to mention skin allergies. The risks simply aren’t worth it – they don’t do a better job of protecting you.
Which Sunscreens You Should buy
This year, Environmental working Group gave 239 beach and sport sunscreens a green rating, the highest rating assigned to products by the group. There are also 239 green-rated sunscreen lotions for kids.
EWG also lists the worst of the worst sunscreens in its report, which includes recognizable names such as Banana Boat, Coppertone, CVS Health, Equate (Wal-Mart brand), and Neutrogena.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.