Only 1 in 4 sunscreens offers protection without 'worrisome' chemicals, says new report. Here's why dermatologists aren't concerned.

Four bottles of sunscreen on a towel.
Only 1 in 4 sunscreens offers protection without the use of “worrisome” chemicals, according to a report. Here’s what you need to know. (Getty Images)

A new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finds that only 1 in 4 sunscreens out of the 1,700 SPF products the organization reviewed is effective without the use of “worrisome” chemicals.

The report calls out the ingredient oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) in particular because, along with the ability to cause allergic skin reactions, lab studies have found that the chemical is absorbed into the bloodstream and can act as a hormone disruptor. More specifically, some research shows a link between oxybenzone use and lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys. Other research notes an association between oxybenzone use and affected thyroid hormones, kidney function and puberty timing, while pointing out that more research is warranted. (Along with the report, the EWG released its annual list of best sunscreens to help consumers select the right sunscreen for them.)

However, not all dermatologists agree with the EWG’s concerns. So where does that leave consumers? Here’s what you need to know.

How harmful are certain sunscreen ingredients?

There are two main types of sunscreen: mineral and chemical. Dermatologist Dr. Dustin Portela explains that mineral sunscreens use ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, both of which are naturally occurring and are considered safe by both the FDA and EWG. Chemical sunscreens, which make up the majority of sunscreen products, use a variety of synthetic chemicals, including oxybenzone, to protect the skin.

While some chemicals used in sunscreens have come under scrutiny for potential side effects in animal models, including oxybenzone in the recent EWG report, “human data has not shown the same risks,” Portela tells Yahoo Life. He adds: “Current research indicates that these chemical sunscreen ingredients are generally regarded as safe for human use and they are very effective at providing UV protection.”

Dr. Christina Lee Chung, a dermatologist with Schweiger Dermatology, agrees, telling Yahoo Life that “the vast majority of sunscreen ingredients approved by the FDA are safe and effective if used properly.”

Chung acknowledges that some studies show that chemicals used in some sunscreens, including oxybenzone, enter the bloodstream. However, she says that this isn’t cause for alarm. “This is true of so many things we use on our skin on a daily basis,” she says, explaining that no studies show “harmful and negative outcomes” from coming in contact with these chemicals at the low levels contained in sunscreen. “Just because ingredients get absorbed and have proven in a lab to have the potential to do something does not mean it has that effect on the human body.”

According to Chung, “you would have to apply oxybenzone to your skin for 300 years straight to get your blood levels to the concentration shown in lab studies to have the harmful effects” produced in the lab.

A form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate is another ingredient used in some sunscreens that has come under scrutiny. According to Portela, studies have shown that retinyl palmitate, which is sometimes used as an antiaging agent in sunscreen, might not be protective. However, he explains that these studies “were only evaluating the effects of retinyl palmitate alone and not in the presence of a sunscreen that offers UV protection, so it’s not honest to infer that sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate will increase your risk of skin cancer.”

He adds that “it’s certainly not necessary to choose a sunscreen with vitamin A, but it’s not something to be feared either.”

Nevertheless, Chung says that anyone concerned about using sunscreens with oxybenzone or any other chemical can stick to using mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Portela says that all chemicals used in sunscreens warrant “further investigation.” However, he believes they are safe and uses chemical sunscreens “without hesitation.” Portela says that “the only ingredients that someone should avoid are those that they are allergic to.”

As Portela points out, it’s “well studied and demonstrated that sunscreen reduces risks. I would advise anyone who may have concerns about sunscreen to weigh the theoretical risk of sunscreen against the absolute risk of unprotected sun exposure.”

Chung emphasizes that no one should be fearful about using sunscreen or scared into “obsessing over which sunscreen you should use.” She says, “Try a bunch and use what you like — liberally.”

4 factors to consider when choosing a sunscreen

With so many brands of sunscreen available, it’s hard to know which is best, but it’s not necessary to overthink the decision. Chung cautions against relying on “best of” lists, including EWG’s popular list, to choose a sunscreen. While there is nothing wrong with using a product from these types of lists if someone feels better doing so, they aren’t necessarily a complete or even accurate representation of the best sunscreens available.

Experts say that in general, when choosing a sunscreen, there are four factors to consider:

• Pay attention to SPF. A higher SPF (sun protection factor) isn’t necessarily better. Chung recommends using sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15 for people of color and SPF 30 for those with lighter pigmentation. “I get wary of anything higher than SPF 50 simply because it lulls people into a sense of safety when it reality,” she says, there is “little to no difference” between SPF 30 and SPF 50.

• Look for broad spectrum sunscreen. That means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Portela explains that this is important because while SPF protects against UVB rays, you also need protection against UVA rays since they increase the risk of skin cancer as well.

• Consider the activities you plan on doing. “If you will be sweating or swimming, you should select a sunscreen that is rated to be water-resistant,” Portela says. “This means the sunscreen won’t just wash off when you get wet but will continue to offer the same protection.”

• Pick a sunscreen you’ll actually use. Whether it’s a spray, lotion or stick, the most crucial factor in selecting a sunscreen is choosing one you “like and will use,” says Chung — and will reapply frequently. “If you’re playing sports, you might want a spray for your body or a stick for your face,” she says. “If you are at the pool, you might be OK with drying off and applying more lotion sunscreen.”

How to apply sunscreen correctly

Applying sunscreen isn’t a one-and-done process. Chung recommends applying sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before heading out and reapplying as frequently as every 40 minutes if you are sweating or in the water. Otherwise, it’s OK to reapply sunscreen every two hours. Wait any longer, and you put yourself at risk since no sunscreen lasts more than two hours.

As for how much sunscreen is enough, Chung says that “you need way more than you think you do.” If applying lotion, Chung recommends using one shot glass’s worth to cover the body of an average-size adult. Another helpful technique she recommends is applying sunscreen lotion to three fingers and putting “one stripe down” each body part and then rubbing it in. Sunscreen sprays and sticks should be used with care to ensure complete coverage.

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