Think carefully before choosing sunscreen for you and your family this summer.
In a report released in May, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group analyzed the chemicals and effectiveness of more than 1,300 sunscreens and found that over 60% of them would not pass safety rules proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
More than half of the sunscreens — 60% — that EWG reviewed either don’t adequately protect against sun exposure or have potentially harmful chemicals in them. But the organization says there are ways to check the ingredients to help make sure sunscreens are safe.
“Based on the best current science, the safest and most effective sunscreen active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” said Nneka Leiba, director of Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Healthy Living Science program. “It’s long past time that the chemicals used in sunscreens were tested to show that they will not harm our health.”
Watch out for these ingredients
The EWG advises against sunscreens containing the chemical oxybenzone. “Oxybenzone is an allergen that is absorbed by the skin and can be detected in the bodies of nearly every American,” it says. “It is also a potential hormone disruptor still used in 60 percent of non-mineral sunscreens.”
Earlier this month, the FDA published a peer-reviewed study in the medical journal JAMA that found that several active ingredients, including oxybenzone, enter the bloodstream at levels that far exceed the agency’s recommended threshold for requiring additional safety tests.
In another study published in Environmental Health Perspectives 2016, American adolescent boys with higher concentrations of oxybenzone in their bodies had lower levels of testosterone. Those scientists recommended further studies to confirm and elucidate on their findings.
260 sunscreens meet EWG safety standards
The good news: Researchers found more than 260 sunscreens that meet the EWG’s criteria for safety and efficacy and would likely meet the proposed FDA standards. Check them out here. “Even the biggest brands now provide mineral options for consumers,” the report said.
The FDA oversees how sunscreen manufacturers label their products, and the safety and efficacy of their ingredients. It says products with SPF or sunscreen protection factor values of 15 or above should be labeled with an SPF corresponding to the lowest number in a range of tested SPF results.
”Sunscreens testing at SPF 15 to 19 would be labeled ‘SPF 15,’” the FDA says on its website, outlining the rules for these products. “Those testing at 40 to 49 would be labeled ‘SPF 40.’” There are some 12,000 sunscreen products on the market. The EWG has its own recommendations.
How to choose a safe and effective sunscreen
The FDA identifies sunscreen dosage considered “eligible or ineligible” under its sunscreen standards. It invites comments and reports on the safety and efficacy of spray sunscreens. It recommends applying sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside and reapplying every two hours.
It also has detailed instructions on how to choose safe and effective sunscreen. “Not all sunscreens are broad spectrum, so it is important to look for it on the label. Broad spectrum sunscreen provides protection from the sun’s ultraviolet UV radiation,” it says.
“There are two types of UV radiation that you need to protect yourself from — UVA and UVB. Broad spectrum provides protection against both by providing a chemical barrier that absorbs or reflects UV radiation before it can damage the skin,” the FDA adds.
Some sunscreens are also bad for the environment
In February, the FDA released a proposal for updated sunscreen regulations, which the EWG says is a big step toward cleaning up a poorly regulated industry, “with much-needed reforms that would better protect public health.”
Last year, Hawaii passed a bill to ban the sales of over-the-counter sunscreens that contain the chemicals oxybenzone or octinoxate, which are considered to be harmful to coral reefs, making it the first U.S. state to do pass such a bill. The legislation will go into effect in 2021.
An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen flow into coral reefs every year. Craig Downs, executive director of Clifford, Va.-based Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, told MarketWatch, “Sunscreen pollution is also sewage pollution.”
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