If you’re old enough to read this, no doubt you’ve been told to protect your skin from the sun and that loading up on SPF is the way to go. But not all sunscreens are created equal.
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2015 Sunscreen Guide analyzed 1,700 products and found that only 21 percent of brands tested delivered on their promise of providing sun protection, while also avoiding potentially irritating chemicals. The other 79 percent didn’t live up to their claims (we’re looking at you, SPF 100 products) or contained worrisome ingredients. Most major sunscreen brands scored poorly.
“The FDA ruled that powdered sunscreens should undergo a more rigorous approval process.”
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently taking steps to limit the maximum SPF on sunscreens to 50 — noting that there’s not much evidence proving that products with higher SPFs are any more effective. And according to the EWG, current regulations allow manufacturers to add many inactive ingredients to sunscreens that could cause allergic reactions, endocrine disruption and other concerning problems. So what’s a sun lover to do?
“This is in some ways a balancing act,” says Dave Andrews, Senior Scientist at EWG. “Sunscreens are an important part of sun safety. [At the same time,] it’s important to choose better products.” Start by reading labels and educating yourself on the ingredients listed below.
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What to Look Out for on SPF Labels
1. Oxybenzone. This FDA-approved ingredient, which helps fight UVA radiation, is found in a significant portion of high-SPF products, says Andrews. Human and animal studies suggest the chemical can penetrate the skin, accumulate in the body and potentially disrupt the hormone system. The EWG notes that this ingredient can also trigger allergic skin reactions. Look for oxybenzone or benzophenone-3 on labels.
2. Vitamin A. This ingredient is added to nearly 18 percent of sunscreens due to its potential anti-aging properties, according to the EWG. However, one two-year animal study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Toxicology Panel found that vitamin A in sunscreens accelerated the growth of skin tumors when applied to skin and exposed to sunlight. More research is needed, but in the meantime, the EWG encourages consumers to avoid it, says Andrews. Look out for ingredients such as retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid, retinyl lineolate, and retinyl acetate on labels.
3. Parabens. Many cosmetics brands have started making beauty products paraben-free in recent years. A common preservative, parabens have gotten a bad rep from studies showing they may mimic estrogen in the body. However, the FDA maintains that parabens are safe at low levels. Look for butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, or propyl-paraben on labels.
4. Powders or sprays. These popular products release tiny particles into the air that may not be safe to breathe. In 2011, the FDA ruled that powdered sunscreens should undergo a more rigorous approval process due to safety concerns. The EWG is particularly concerned about the inhalation of nano- and micro-sized particles because inhalation exposes the body to a given chemical differently than applying it to the skin.
5. Bug repellants. Many sunscreens now double as insect repellants, but it may be worth sticking with plain sunscreen and swatting the bugs, instead. (Or, choose a product from the EWG’s list of top bug repellants). Studies on human skin cells indicate that using sunscreens and pesticides like DEET simultaneously may increase pesticides’ penetration into the skin. Because of these risks, the FDA is considering new labeling requirements for these products.
Need a cheat sheet? Select healthier sunscreens by choosing from EWG’s list of approved products, which Andrews says are just as effective as other brands. Andrews also encourages everyone to follow general sun preparedness tips like wearing hats, long-sleeved shirts, pants, and sunglasses; staying in the shade (or using a shade tent or umbrella), and scheduling outdoor activities in the early morning or late afternoon (when UV radiation is less intense). Your skin will thank you for years to come.