Your complete guide to choosing the perfect summer sunscreen

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

With summer approaching and skin cancer rates at an all-time high, getting full protection from the sun is crucial. In anticipation, EWG (Environmental Working Group) released its 12th Annual Guide to Sunscreens on Tuesday, outlining the best sunscreen products on the market and warning about potentially dangerous ingredients present in lotions and sprays.

The report comes just one week after Consumer Reports released its own analysis, The ABCs of SPF, which explains what common terms on sunscreen labels mean and says which ones are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Together, the two guides form a roadmap for you to stay safe this summer, whether you’re basking in the rays or simply going about your business outside. In the interest of simplifying, Yahoo Lifestyle is presenting the five things you need to know (and the eight sunscreens you can buy confidently).

Spray sunscreens are potentially less effective — and even dangerous.

In this year’s guide, EWG found a 30 percent increase in the total number of spray sunscreens on the market, a number that’s more than quadrupled since 2007. The organization views this trend as problematic, citing concerns about both an “inhalation risk” and the potential inability to “provide a thick and even coating on skin.” The FDA has issued similar warnings against sprays in the past, specifically regarding how the aerosol can “irritate asthma” in kids. Like EWG, it recommends opting for lotion-based sunscreen instead of spray. 

Higher SPF is not necessarily safer and can be misleading.

Echoing another concern raised by the FDA in years past, EWG points out that “bigger SPFs are not necessarily better,” despite popular belief. “In 2011, the FDA determined that high SPF claims may be inherently misleading, and proposed to join most industrialized nations in capping SPF values at 50+. But the agency hasn’t finalized the rule, and the inflated SPF values for American sunscreens keep climbing,” the report reads.

It continues, “Many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and as a result may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF values. …

“In 2007, only 10 sunscreens in our guide claimed SPF 70 and higher. This year we found 52 products making such claims, including 13 products advertised as SPF 100 or higher.” In the absence of adequate regulations, the organization recommends sticking to sunscreens at SPF 50 or below, and reapplying every few hours.

Sunscreen alone doesn’t protect against skin cancer.

While some may consider sunscreen a magic elixir against deadly cancers like melanoma, EWG points out a stark reality: Even with the most advanced sunscreens on the market, skin cancer rates have continued to soar, tripling in the past 35 years alone. EWG affirms the benefits of sunscreen in protecting from burns, which can contribute to squamous cell carcinoma (the second most common type of skin cancer). But although there is evidence that sunscreen can lower the risk of that kind, there is no evidence that it prevents another deadly form of cancer called basal cell carcinoma

As a result, the organization says it “strongly disagrees” with the FDA allowing labeling about preventing cancer on sunscreens. “We are concerned that this labeling will lead people to rely on sunscreen use alone to mitigate their cancer risk, and that this may backfire,” the report warns. “People who rely on sunscreens tend to burn, and sunburns are linked to cancer.” In other words, the best prevention is to stay out of the sun as much as possible and avoid sunburns at all costs.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Try to avoid sunscreens that contain vitamin A.

Generally when you see the word “vitamin” listed on a sunscreen, it seems like an added bonus. But EWG says that with vitamin A and sunscreens, it’s just the opposite. “A study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2012),” the report reads. “EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions that contain vitamin A or retinyl palmitate, which is also called retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate and retinol.”

Oxybenzone may be a dangerous ingredient — and it’s found in the majority of sunscreens.

A final warning from EWG’s report comes about oxybenzone, the main chemical in non-mineral sunscreens (or sunscreens that rely on chemicals to block out the sun rather than minerals like zinc oxide and titanium oxide). The report claims that recent tests have shown the chemical to be dangerous. “Oxybenzone is linked to hormone disruption and allergic skin reactions, as well as the bleaching of coral reefs and coral death,” EWG writes. “This toxic chemical is found in the blood of nearly every American tested for it and has even been found in breast milk.”

Still, while the chemical may be worth avoiding, the jury still seems to be out on whether it’s definitively dangerous. The American Academy of Dermatology endorses sunscreens that contain the product, saying that “no data shows that oxybenzone causes hormonal problems in humans.”

The more natural the sunscreen, the better it is for you.

On top of these takeaways, the EWG report offers a list of the best sunscreens to buy for different types of users and activity levels. The sections include: Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens, Best Moisturizers with SPF, and Best Scoring Sunscreens for Kids.

Here are a few of the top performers in the survey:

Best everyday face moisturizer: Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer, All Skin Types, SPF 15 ($12, Target)
Best for face: Clinique Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen Fluid for Face ($27.50, Sephora)
Best for sports: Alba Botanica Sport Mineral Sunscreen, Fragrance Free SPF 45 ($8.95, Amazon)
Best for zinc lovers: Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 50 ($10.99, Target)
Best for sensitive skin: Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 ($11, Amazon)
Best for dry skin: Aveeno Protect + Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30 ($7.97, Amazon)
Best for infants: Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion SPF 50 ($10.89, Target)
Best for kids: Banana Boat Kids Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 ($2.99, Walgreens)

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