As you choose your sunscreen for summer fun, be careful to avoid products with harmful chemicals and false advertising claims, according to the 15th Annual Guide to Sunscreens, published by the Environmental Working Group, a consumer organization that advocates for environmental safety.
This year, EWG analyzed an additional 500 sunscreens, bringing the total to over 1,800 products, and found that 75% did not provide adequate sun protection or included ingredients linked to harm.
“The answer is not to throw up our hands and say no sunscreen is safe,” said Nneka Leiba, EWG’s vice president of healthy living science. “There are at least 200 recreational sunscreens in our database that got a thumbs up.”
Besides, consumers should always rely on safe sun practices first, then apply sunscreen, experts say.
“A good T-shirt blocks the sun’s rays so much more effectively than a bad sunscreen. The cloth provides a little space between your skin and the rays, and also occludes a lot of the rays,” Leiba said.
“Covering your skin, wearing hats, avoiding the midday sun and being careful about kids, because of their increased susceptibility,” are good choices, Leiba said. “There are lots of tools in that sun protection toolbox – sunscreen is just one of them.”
Sunscreen chemicals found in bloodstream
After a single application, a total of seven chemicals commonly found in sunscreens can be absorbed into the bloodstream at levels that exceed safety thresholds, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.
After four days of using sunscreen, study participants still had unsafe levels of two of the chemicals – oxybenzone and homosalate – in blood samples taken 21 days after subjects had stopped application, an FDA study found.
That doesn’t necessarily mean those sunscreen products are unsafe to use, the FDA said, but appropriate safety tests do need to be performed by manufacturers.
Those chemicals are part of a dozen that the FDA has been asking manufacturers to research for years so they can be considered GRASE or “generally recognized as safe and effective.”
Besides oxybenzone and homosalate, the chemicals that need safety testing are avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, meradimate, padimate O and sulisobenzone.
A 2008 Swiss study found oxybenzone or one of four other sunscreen chemicals in 85% of breast milk samples, sparking concern that newborns could be exposed. A 2010 study found another commonly used chemical, octinoxate, in breast milk.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate have also been linked to damage to coral reefs and marine life. Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, Key West and the Pacific island of Palau currently ban the use of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and more locations worldwide are considering the same.
For those who are concerned about chemicals entering their bloodstream, there are two types of mineral (not chemical) sunscreen ingredients considered safe and effective by the FDA: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
Sunscreens made with minerals physically deflect and block the sun’s rays, as opposed to sunscreens with chemical filters that absorb the UVB rays and release heat as they break down.
Another plus — mineral ingredients don’t appear to harm the environment.
The number of products containing minerals has been growing as consumers reach for products that are safer for both human health and the environment, said Carla Burns, EWG’s senior analyst of healthy living science.
“This year it’s right around 45% of all the products in the guide have mineral active ingredients, whether that be zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or a combination of both,” Burns said.
“We’re definitely seeing an increase in the past three to five years of the daily use moisturizer with SPF based on mineral ingredients,” she added.
At the same time, another trend is occurring – a reduction in the use of oxybenzone in US products.
“Two, three years ago 60% of the non-mineral products contained oxybenzone,” Leiba said. “Last year it was only 40% and this year it’s 38%. So we’ve definitely seen a drop in oxybenzone over the last year or two.”
“Sun protection factor,” or SPF, is what most Americans look at when they choose a sunscreen – the higher the SPF the better, right? Wrong.
Choosing a 100+ SPF isn’t more protective than a sunscreen rated at 60+ SPF, according to the FDA. That’s because there’s no good data showing sunscreens can protect past a level of 60+ SPF. Labeling sunscreens at higher levels could provide users with a false sense of sun protection, the FDA said.
“More than one in ten of the sunscreens we reviewed claim to have an SPF greater than 50+. The Environmental Working Group recommends consumers avoid products that claim an SPF higher than 50+.
In addition, SPF applies only to the UVB rays that cause sunburn and not the UVA rays experts say penetrate deeper into skin tissue, causing aging and long-lasting damage to skin cells.
That’s why dermatologists recommend always using a sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum,” which protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
One chemical additive, avobenzone, and one mineral option, zinc oxide, provide the best UVA protection currently available in US sunscreens, EWG says. Europe has more protective options; however, they have not been approved by the FDA for use in the US.
Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide protect from both UVA and UVB rays – although titanium dioxide is only moderately effective against UVA rays, EWG said.
Another note of caution: Some sunscreen manufacturers are adding anti-inflammatories to reduce skin reddening, the telltale sign of sunburn that is a clear sign of skin damage. Look for botanical extracts like licorice, chamomile and aloe, EWG says, which will not protect against damaging rays.
Beware of sunscreen sprays
Another area of FDA concern is the possible danger posed by spray and powder forms of sunscreen application. Sprays are potentially combustible, and both sprays and powders can enter the lungs if particles are small enough.
Anything 10 micrometers in diameter or less poses the greatest health problems as they can penetrate deep into the lungs and could do irreversible damage.
“We know that titanium dioxide when inhaled, whether from a powder or from a spray, can have carcinogenic effects, meaning it has been linked to cancer,” Leiba said.
The FDA has proposed that all spray and powdered sunscreens be tested, but nothing has yet begun. Due to the lack of definitive testing, EWG recommends that all sprays be avoided.
Unfortunately, the 2021 EWG report found the number of sunscreen sprays on the US market has been increasing over the years, as consumers appear to like the convenience of a quick blast of spray.
“More than a quarter of the sunscreens in this year’s guide are in spray form, that’s about 260 different products,” Leiba said.
There is another reason why spray and powders are not good sun protection, experts say. It’s all too easy to miss a spot or encounter a breeze that could carry the sunscreen away from the skin.
“The average American does not sit there and hold down an aerosol or pump spray long enough to get that adequate coverage,” Burns said. “We do suggest that consumers opt for a lotion or stick product to make sure you can get coverage that’s evenly applied.”
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
The actual amount, extent and timimg of sunscreen that needs to be applied to the skin may also surprise you. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying at least 1 ounce of sunscreen to all exposed skin every two hours or after swimming, including “back, neck, face, ears, tops of your feet and legs.”
“If you’re using the adequate amount of sunscreen, you’ll go through that product fairly quickly,” Burns said, so “you shouldn’t have a bottle last over multiple years.
“We also want you to check your product before you use it, especially if you leave it in a hot car,” she added. “If there’s any type of separation, or it’s clumpy or not a perfect mixture, then throw it away and get a new bottle.”