In its 12th annual Guide to Sunscreens, researchers from Environmental Working Group (EWG) rated the safety and efficacy of almost 650 sunscreens, as well as daily moisturizers and lip balms that have SPF values.
The results are different than they were 11 years ago because many U.S. sunscreen "products have become safer and federal regulators cracked down on some of the worst phony marketing claims," says EWG. But this year's report found that there are still serious safety concerns with many of the products they 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, is not 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.
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. And, although the EWG has seen improvements in many sunscreens over the past 11 years, this is one area that hasn't improved. When they first began the sunscreen guide, only 10 sunscreens tested claimed an SPF of 70 or higher. This year, they found 52 that do so, including 13 that claim SPF 100 or higher.
Slather, don't spray
The number of spray sunscreens are also on the rise, despite concerns that have to do 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 about 30 percent. And, despite the FDA saying in 2011 that they were considering a ban on spray sunscreen, no decision has been made. 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: beach and sport, kids, moisturizers with SPF and worst scoring kids' sunscreens. You probably won't be surprised to see that many of the worst scoring products are the most recognizable brand names. With over 650 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.