Why Your Sunscreen May Not Protect You as Much as You Think

Amy Rushlow
·Senior Editor
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Eighty percent of sunscreens contain harmful ingredients or don’t offer enough protection against the full spectrum of ultraviolet radiation, according to a new report. How concerned should you be? (Photo: Corbis/Pinkypills)

You slather on sunscreen whenever you go out in the sun — at least most of the time. You reapply every two hours — or around then. But are you as protected as you think against the sun’s harmful rays?

Probably not, according to a wide body of research that suggests U.S. sunscreens offer inferior protection against one type of ultraviolet (UV) ray, and that improper and lax application — encouraged by a false sense of security provided by ultra-high SPF numbers — could diminish sunscreen effectiveness.

Today, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its annual sunscreen guide, which analyzed more than 1,700 products. The EWG’s analysis looked at the concentration of active ingredients in the sunscreen, along with the combination of chemicals in the products. The results: According to the EWG, 80 percent of products contained ingredients the group deems harmful, that offer poor UV protection, or both. 

Also today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released research showing that only 30 percent of women and 15 percent of men apply sunscreen, even when they’re spending an extended amount of time in the sun. The study was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

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(Infographic: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

Related: The Scary Cause Behind the Rise In Skin Cancer Rates

Products by CVS, Neutrogena, Banana Boat, Coppertone, and NO-AD made the EWG’s Sunscreen Hall of Shame due to ingredients the EWG deems harmful (oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate) or ultra-high SPF values.

More than 200 products made the EWG’s list of Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens, including products by Alba Botanica, Blue Frog, Blue Lizard, The Honest Company, and True Natural. The EWG also publishes a list of the Best Beach and Sport Sunscreens: Non-Mineral Options for consumers who want to avoid titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which can leave a white coating on the skin.

The EWG’s concerns aren’t new. The report highlights concerns about controversial chemicals, labeling, and product formulation that have been going on for years. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration took a big step in 2011, when the agency set requirements for sunscreen labeling. But many problems still remain.

These concerns, of course, don’t imply that people should stop wearing sunscreen. A landmark study of Australian adults published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that daily sunscreen use reduced by 50 percent the risk for melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, a full decade after the experiment ended. The same study found that sunscreen use reduced the rates of invasive melanoma by more than 70 percent. (It’s worth noting that the subjects used SPF 16 sunscreen; protection would theoretically be greater if they had used a higher SPF.)

Still, “there’s room for improvement,” says Steven Wang, MD, director of dermatology and dermatologic surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Center.

Problem #1: Products Don’t Offer Enough Broad-Spectrum Protection

There are two types of UV rays that play a role in skin cancer: UVA and UVB. UVB (think: burning) rays burn the skin and can cause DNA mutations that lead to skin cancer. UVA (think: aging) rays penetrate deeper into the skin. They cause skin aging and wrinkling, and are linked to melanoma, says EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder, MPH.

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(Infographic: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

“A big problem with U.S. sunscreens is that the requirement to call your sunscreen broad spectrum and imply that you’re protecting against UVA is a very weak standard, and almost every sunscreen on the market meets that standard,” Lunder tells Yahoo Health.

The EWG estimates that half of all sunscreens with a broad-spectrum label wouldn’t be allowed to be sold in Europe, which uses a higher standard for UVA protection.

“This is something consumers can’t tell by reading a product label, and it’s a really misleading part of sunscreen marketing in the United States,” Lunder says.

Problem #2: Potentially Dangerous Ingredients

Here’s where the science gets tricky. The EWG considers two common ingredients in sunscreens, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) to be hazardous. Oxybenzone — which is in a vast majority of sunscreens — can penetrate the skin and acts like a hormone in the body, Lunder says. More than 95 percent of people have measurable amounts of the chemical in their blood at any one time, and levels are higher during the summer months.

These conclusions, however, are based on limited animal studies. “A lot of the research on oxybenzones and retinol palmitate is done, first of all, with mice, and the studies have exposed the animal to a huge quantity of the chemical in a very small time,” Wang tells Yahoo Health. “That exposure element needs to be factored in.”

In fact, research conducted by Wang and colleagues found that you’d have to apply sunscreen constantly every day for more than 200 years to approximate the exposure to oxybenzone used in the animal studies.

In addition, Wang points out, “the binding capacity between oxybenzone and the estrogen receptor is 1,000 times weaker than estrogen.” 

Although many products contain oxybenzone, there are some that don’t. The EWG’s guide to sunscreens gives consumers a number of oxybenzone-free options for those who wish to avoid it.

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(Infographic: Erik Mace for Yahoo Health)

Problem #3: Super-High SPFs

The EWG’s report also criticizes sunscreen manufacturers for using super-high SPF numbers — some higher than 100. Although on the surface that might not seem like a problem, these ultra-high SPFs create a false sense of security for consumers, Lunder says.

“The FDA itself has called the higher SPF products inherently misleading. Studies suggest that people put on less and they don’t reapply as often. And you may prevent a sunburn when you apply an SPF 100, but you’re not getting the same amount of UVA protection,” Lunder says. “The sun isn’t even up enough hours in the day to need an SPF 100, especially if you’re applying a thick coat and reapplying every two hours like you should.”

Countries including Japan and Europe cap SPF numbers at 50 for this reason. In Australia, sunscreens can only be labeled as high as 30 SPF.

Research also shows that sunscreens with an SPF higher than 30 don’t offer much additional protection, and that SPF testing for high-SPF sunscreens can be unreliable. And SPF 30 sunscreen, when applied properly, protects against 94 percent of UVB rays; at SPF 50, that number rises to 97 percent.

Related: Woman’s Graphic Selfie Highlights the Dangers of Repeated Tanning

Problem #4: User Error

You’ve heard that you should reapply sunscreen every two hours, but you might not realize why. One of the most common UVA blockers used in sunscreens, avobenzone, breaks down in the sun. Only one hour of sun exposure decreases the effectiveness of avobenzone by 50 to 60 percent, research shows.

Manufacturers mix it with other chemicals to stabilize it, but it still eventually breaks down and loses its effectiveness over time. Plus, the FDA limits avobenzone in sunscreens to 3 percent.

Studies show that people only use half of the amount of sunscreen recommended, which diminishes its protection against UV rays.

Watch the video below to find out the right way to apply sunscreen — and how much to use:

“We’ve found that a lot of times people use sunscreen and they have this false sense of security that they’re completely protected from the sun,” says Dawn Holman, MPH, a behavioral scientist in the CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control. “They end up staying out in the sun longer than they would have otherwise, and their total UV exposure actually gets increased.” 

The bottom line: Use the EWG’s database to avoid ingredients that you personally find troublesome. And don’t forget about other forms of UV protection, such as avoiding the sun during peak hours (11 a.m. to 2 p.m.), and wearing long and, if possible, UV-protective clothing.

“Sunscreen provides the most protection when it’s paired with other forms of sun protection,” Holman says. “Just using sunscreen alone isn’t really enough.”

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