I recently took a trip to Turks & Caicos with some friends and their daughters for a week-long vacation. One of the first things I did was make sure the teenage girls took notice of the very dark, very ugly scar on my chest, a result from surgery to remove skin cancer. They were grossed out, but they got the message: Worshipping the sun without protecting your skin can lead to skin cancer. That can lead to ugly, visible scars — and that's if you're lucky. If you're unlucky it can lead to considerably more serious health problems.

Fortunately, these girls have grown up with the knowledge that sunscreen is important and have been slathered and sprayed most of their lives — unlike my generation, which thought using baby oil to get darker faster was a brilliant idea. But not all products designed to protect skin from the sun are created equally. According to the Environmental Working Group's 2017 Guide to Sunscreens, almost three-fourths of the products the group 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."

“The vast majority of sunscreens available to Americans aren’t as good as they should be,” said Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG and lead author of the guide. “Sunscreens will not improve until the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets stronger rules, reviews harmful chemicals and allows the use of new ingredients that offer stronger UVA protection.”

Looking beyond SPF

The guide helps consumers choose the best sunscreen for their needs, and it's not as easy as choosing the can or tube with the highest SPF (sun protection factor). According to EWG, higher SPF ratings don't protect much more than lower ratings. In fact, they may give people a false sense of safety, spending more time in the sun or not reapplying sunscreen because they assume the higher SPF will last longer than it does.

In fact, in 2011, the FDA proposed capping SPF values at 50+, as most other industrialized countries do since the higher numbers don't make a significant difference. The rule has yet to be finalized, and while the FDA has held off a final decision, the number of sunscreens that claim an SPF of 70 and higher are increasing. In 2007, when the EWG published its first annual sunscreen guide, only 10 sunscreens they looked at had an SPF of 70 or higher. This year there are 69 products with an SPF over 70.

What to look for in a sunscreen

Woman applying sunscreen Look for sunscreen in cream form to get the most even coverage. (Photo: photopixel/Shutterstock)

If the SPF isn't going to help you make the best choice, what will? There are variety of things to look for when choosing sunscreen.

When choosing a sunscreen, EWG says to look at the ingredients list. They recommend sunscreens contain zinc oxide, avobenzone, and mexoryl sx. Look for sunscreens that are creams, have broad spectrum protection (both UVB and UVA rays), are water-resistant (which does not mean waterproof), and with an SPF of 15-50, whichever you determine fits your needs.

What to avoid in a sunscreen

spray sunscreen Using spray sunscreen may leave your skin coated unevenly. (Photo: photoroyalty/Shutterstock)

There are certain things you want to avoid, according to EWG. If the ingredients list contains oxybenzone, vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), or added insect repellent, pass it on by. Also, they say to avoid sprays, powders and any sunscreen with an SPF above 50.

It's important to note the recommendations to avoid sprays. Yes, they seem much more convenient to apply than cream-based sunscreens, but research shows they're far less effective. According to EWG, concerns include an inhalation risk and the inability to provide a thick and even coating on skin. In 2011, the FDA also voiced concerns, saying the agency may ban spray sunscreen unless the companies that make the products can supply data proving spray sunscreens protect skin and are not hazardous. The FDA has yet to move on that, though.

EWG recommended sunscreens

EWG rates products on five factors:

  • Health hazards associated with listed ingredients (based on a review of nearly 60 standard industry, academic, government regulatory and toxicity databases).
  • UVB protection (using SPF rating as the indicator of effectiveness).
  • UVA protection (using a standard industry absorbance model).
  • Balance of UVA/UVB protection (using the ratio of UVA absorbance to SPF).
  • Sunscreen stability (how quickly an ingredient breaks down in the sun, using an in-house stability database compiled from published findings of industry and peer-reviewed stability studies).

EWG sunscreen recommendations are divided into three different categories: Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens (239 products meet their standards), Best Scoring Sunscreen Lotions for Kids (they recommend 19 different products), and Best Moisturizers with SPF. The approved brands appear alphabetically so it's easy to find the brand you're considering to see if it meets the criteria.

To make it even easier, the EWG's Healthy Living app is updated with the 2017 information so you can easily check recommendations when you're standing in the store aisle looking at the dozens of options.

Sunscreen is not the only precaution

mother sun beach umbrella Shade, in addition to sunblock, is an important layer of protection when you're out in the sun. (Photo: Alliance /Shutterstock)

There is no definitive proof that sunscreen prevents most cancers, and the fact that many people don't use them correctly may contribute to their lack of effectiveness. But, they can, when used properly help block harmful rays, which is one of the factors that leads to skin cancer.

EWG recommends wearing clothes that cover your skin, finding or making shade when you're outside, wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays, planning activities in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky, and checking the UV index in addition to using sunscreen to help avoid the harm that can come from sun exposure.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

73 percent of sunscreens don't work
The Environmental Working Group's 11th annual sunscreen guide rates the safety and efficacy of more than 1,400 products.