73 Percent of Sunscreens Don’t Work as They Should, According to 2017 Guide

How does your sunscreen measure up? (Photo: Arthur Belebeau/Trunk Archive)
How does your sunscreen measure up? (Photo: Arthur Belebeau/Trunk Archive)

When you’re rushing out the door in the morning, remembering to apply (and later reapply) sunscreen is hard enough. But even if you do slather up religiously, doing so effectively is not as simple as it may seem. Turns out sunscreens are hampered by a range of problems — from ineffective formulas to toxic ingredients — that keep the products from doing their job properly. That’s why the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) just released its 11th annual Guide to Sunscreens, reviewing and rating hundreds of lotions and sprays so that you don’t have to get burned to realize that your product of choice just doesn’t work.

This year, EWG rated nearly 1,500 sunscreens, nearly twice the number included in last year’s edition.

Of those, the study found 166 beach and sport sunscreens that met all of EWG’s criteria, including All Terrain TerraSport SPF 30, Beautycounter Protect All Over Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30, and Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Stick SPF 30; 19 top-scoring lotions for kids, such as Badger Baby Sunscreen Cream SPF 30 and Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen SPF 50; and 14 kids’ sunscreens that ranked at the bottom of the heap due to unsafe ingredients or excessively high SPF numbers, or simply for being sprays, which pose inhalation risks and make it easy to miss important spots.

Among those worst-rated are Banana Boat Kids Sunscreen Lotion SPF 100, Coppertone Foaming Lotion Sunscreen Kids Wacky Foam SPF 70, and Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen SPF 60+. You can find all product ratings at EWG’s sunscreen guide website.

All in all this year, EWG found that 73 percent of the products it tested either don’t work well or contain harmful ingredients — such as retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A shown actually to heighten sun sensitivity, and oxybenzone, a known hormone disruptor.

So why are the products in your sunscreens to begin with? Because, as with ingredients in all beauty products, they are largely unregulated. It wasn’t even until 2011 that the FDA first began to impose rules on sunscreens, forcing companies to remove misleading claims like “waterproof” and “sweatproof” from product labels. In 2014, former President Barack Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act, a law to speed the review of new ingredients, which have the potential to dramatically improve the UV protection of American sunscreens. Still, the FDA’s sunscreen tests are “too lax,” the EWG argues.

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

Because European standards are stricter, the EWG estimates that half of the sunscreens sold in the U.S. would not offer enough protection to be sold in Europe. Additionally, misleading claims still remain on U.S. sunscreen products, including those with high SPF ratings that don’t necessarily offer greater protection from UV-related skin damage. Instead, they are misleading: High-SPF products tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun for too long. And while the FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50, it has not issued a regulation. Meanwhile, the number of products touting an SPF of 70 or higher has skyrocketed in the past few years.

But it’s not all bad news, as the EWG has also determined that safer, mineral-only sunscreens have doubled their share of the market from 17 to 34 percent between 2007 and 2017. These sunscreens forgo harmful chemical ingredients, instead using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to prevent sun damage, and rate well by the EWG’s efficacy standards. Plus, ever since the EWG announced in 2010 that vitamin A could harm skin, the use of it in products has plummeted.

Still, it’s important to be conscious of what’s in your sunscreen and whether it’s effective, and one of the best ways to figure it out is by checking the EWG’s database.

If you learn that your sunscreen doesn’t quite cut it, the EWG has some tips for buying your next bottle or tube:

  1. Check products against EWG’s sunscreen database and avoid those with harmful additives.

  2. Steer clear of products with SPFs higher than 50.

  3. Avoid sprays. They don’t provide a thick and uniform coating on skin, and pose inhalation concerns.

  4. Stay away from vitamin A. Government studies link the use of retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, to the formation of skin tumors and lesions when it’s applied to sun-exposed skin.

  5. Steer clear of oxybenzone. This widely used UV-filtering chemical has been found to be a hormone disrupter and allergen.

Oh, and be sure never to rely strictly on sunscreen and to take the following precautions: Wear protective clothing whenever possible, such as hats, shirts, and pants; go out when the sun is the least powerful, such as early in the morning or late in the day; seek out shade; wear sunglasses; and whatever you do, don’t get burned!

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