In their 2019 Guide to Sunscreens, researchers from Environmental Working Group (EWG) rated the safety and efficacy of 1,300 products with SPF, including 750 currently available sunscreens, including moisturizers and lip balms that have SPF values.
Since the first EWG report came out more than a decade ago, many U.S. sunscreen products have become safer. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a proposed set of final rules regarding sunscreen safety. The public comment period for those rules runs through May 28. It's not clear if or when they would go into effect, but the rules are more in line with what EWG has been saying for years. In the meantime, that means there are many products still on store shelves that don't meet the new requirements. This year's report found that there are still serious safety concerns with many of the products tested.
In fact, two-thirds of all products tested were found to offer inferior sun protection and/or troubling ingredients like oxybenzone (a hormone disruptor) and retinal palmitate (a form of vitamin A that may harm skin). Additionally, the claim that sunscreens help prevent skin cancer — a claim that can be found on most sunscreen packaging — isn't backed up by evidence.
SPF: Bigger is not better
Reaching for the product that has the highest sun protection factor (SPF) doesn't guarantee better protection. A high SPF doesn't protect much more than a low one. Rather, it can give consumers a false sense of security. They may think that because they have on a sunscreen with an SPF of 70 instead of one with an SPF of 30, they can go longer between re-applying. That's not the case.
In 2011, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) proposed putting a limit of SPF ratings at 50+ like many other industrialize nations, but the agency never finalized the rule. In the recent rules, they propose a limit of 60+, but EWG suggests staying with the more conservative number. Though the EWG has seen improvements in many sunscreens over the years, this is one area that hasn't improved. This year, they found 10% of all sunscreens tested list SPF rankings higher than 50.
Slather, don't spray
The number of spray sunscreens is also on the rise, despite concerns with the amount of protection they provide and the risk of inhaling the sunscreen. Spray sunscreens made up less than 20 percent of the sunscreens tested in 2007. This year, they comprised more than 25 percent. The new FDA rules propose that all spray and powder sunscreens go through additional testing on the inhalation danger. The EWG cautions consumers to avoid spray sunscreens.
Using the guide
The guide rates sunscreens with a scale of 1 to 10 (lower scores are better) and then alphabetically. You can search the guide by categories like beach and sport sunscreens or moisturizers with SPF, and you can also sort to omit certain ingredients and other variations. You probably won't be surprised to see that some of the worst scoring products (those that score a 10) are the most recognizable brand names. With this many products, it's helpful that there's a search bar, too, so you can find a specific sunscreen quickly.
In addition to sunscreen, EWG recommends wearing clothing that covers up your skin, hats and sunglasses to protect your eyes, and staying in the shade when you're outside. Planning activities in the early morning or late afternoon when the sun is lower in the sky can also protect you from harmful sun exposure.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first written in May 2018.