Eeny, meeny, miny, moe — choosing a sunscreen for summer used to be child’s play. Today, market shelves are packed with dozens of options, each promising to be better than the others at protecting skin from the sun’s harmful rays.
However, most sunscreen options contain one or more of a dozen chemicals the US Food and Drug Administration said should be researched by manufacturers before the ingredients can be considered GRASE or “generally regarded as safe and effective,” according to a recent analysis.
“We found only 25% of sunscreens on the market offer good broad-spectrum protection without troublesome chemical ingredients,” said Emily Spilman, Healthy Living Science program manager for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that has investigated sunscreen products for 17 years.
This year’s report, titled EWG 17th Annual Guide to Safer Sunscreens, was released in late May.
The 2023 report has some good news too, for both people and the planet. Use of the ultraviolet ray blocker oxybenzone, which has been linked to human health harms and destruction of coral reefs, continues to decline, the report found.
In 2019, oxybenzone was an ingredient in 60% of all sunscreen products tested by EWG, dropping to 30% in 2022. By this year, the chemical was used in only 6% of tested products, which included sunscreens and daily moisturizers and lip balms with sunscreen protection.
Best sunscreen by use
For the 2023 report, EWG tested and ranked over 1,700 sunscreen products for their safety and effectiveness, grouping the results by use. In the best sunscreen for recreational and beach application, 229 products met EWG criteria; in the babies and children category 51 products met criteria; and 128 products were included in the best daily use category.
“While manufacturers may be moving away from oxybenzone, a significant portion of the market is still made up of products using the 12 ingredients which can’t be considered safe and effective without further testing,” said David Andrews, EWG’s senior scientist.
Products were ranked from 1 to 10 (best to worst) for compliance in four major categories: The level of UVB and UVA protection separately, the balance between the two, and the stability of the active ingredients, including any tendency to break down in sunlight or react with other ingredients to become less effective.
In addition to chemicals, there are two types of mineral ingredients listed in the guide that the FDA said are safe and effective: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. In the past, mineral sunscreens had a bad rap for leaving a white, chalky residue on the skin; however, many of the newer options on the market have solved that issue, Spilman said.
However, inclusion in the sunscreens guide doesn’t require the manufacturers to list ingredients or supply documentation on the safety of their products, said Homer Swei, senior vice president of Healthy Living Science for EWG.
“Consumers need to have confidence that the sunscreen products they use meet international standards,” Swei said.
To do so, this year EWG expanded its verification program for personal care products to include sunscreens. Manufacturers can add an EWG mark of approval to labels if the sunscreen products meet the group’s extremely strict guidelines for verified personal care products.
“So far we have three brands with 12 products that have made it through the program, and we’re expecting it to grow,” Spilman said. “All fees for the program come right back into the science and research that we do at EWG for the benefit of consumers.”
To obtain the EWG mark, the item must be “green,” posing little hazard to health or the environment and must list every ingredient on the label, including nanoparticles and fragrances. The sunscreen must not contain ingredients restricted by the European Union and Canada as well as the FDA, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US National Toxicology Program, and California’s Proposition 65 list of known carcinogens and reproductive toxins.
Sunscreens that carry the EWG verification mark must not use marketing claims banned by the FDA, such as “sunblock,” “sweatproof” or “waterproof” and cannot be in an aerosol or powder form due to the risk of inhalation. The product must have a sun protection factor (SPF) between 15 and 50 and must agree to provide results on UVA performance from an independent laboratory.
The following sunscreens have passed EWG verification testing:
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Face, Unscented, SPF 30
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Kids, Face, Unscented, SPF 30
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Kids, Tropical, SPF 30
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Orange Blossom, SPF 30
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Tropical, SPF 30
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Unscented, SPF 30
• ATTITUDE Mineral Sunscreen Stick, Kids, Unscented, SPF 30
Broad spectrum and SPF
Long-wave ultraviolet A rays (UVA) and short-wave ultraviolet B rays (UVB) penetrate the ozone layer and can burn, damage and age skin even on cloudy days. Ultraviolet radiation is a “proven human carcinogen,” causing squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, which can develop into melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, which works closely with the sunscreen industry.
Up to 95% of all ultraviolet radiation that reaches our skin are UVA rays. These rays, which can pass through glass, are equally intense throughout the year, while UVB rays become more powerful in the spring and summer, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The SPF, or sun protection factor, only applies to UVB rays, so other ingredients need to be added to block UVA rays. Only a sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” will protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays, according to the FDA.
At this time, research has shown the chemical avobenzone and the mineral zinc oxide are the best choices for UVA protection. However, avobenzone is one of the 12 chemicals of concern to the FDA, so choosing a product with zinc oxide may be the safest option, the EWG said.
Mineral sunscreens like zinc oxide are not absorbed by the skin. They physically deflect and block the sun’s rays, as opposed to sunscreens with chemical filters that absorb the UVB rays and release heat as they break down. Another plus — mineral ingredients don’t appear to harm the environment.
Some people choose sunscreens with an SPF of 100+, believing those to be most protective. However, there’s no good data showing sunscreens can protect past a an SPF level of 50+ to 60+, and labeling sunscreens at higher levels could provide users with a false sense of sun protection, the FDA said.
A large decline
The dramatic decline in the use of oxybenzone by manufacturers may be the result of consumer concern about “environmental toxic effects as well as human health effects,” Spilman said.
Oxybenzone was one of six sunscreen chemicals found in the bloodstream of volunteers at levels that exceed safety thresholds after only one day of use, according to a 2019 study by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Oxybenzone was absorbed into the body at about 50 to 100 times higher concentration than five other tested ingredients — avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. Oxybenzone and another chemical — homosalate — then stayed in the bloodstream for seven to 21 days, the study found.
Research has shown a potential link between oxybenzone and lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys, hormone changes in men, shorter pregnancies and disrupted birth weights in babies. However, just because an ingredient is absorbed through the skin doesn’t mean that particular ingredient is unsafe, the FDA said in 2019. The industry should be testing the ingredients to be sure, the FDA added.
The Personal Care Products Council, an industry association, told CNN that the FDA had requested additional data from the industry on some sunscreen ingredients used worldwide.
“Importantly, sunscreens made with these ingredients are not considered unsafe by the FDA and will remain on the market to be used as part of consumers sun-safe practices while additional data are collected,” said the Council’s chief scientist, Alexandra Kowcz, adding that the EWG 2023 report “resorts to fear mongering with misleading information that could keep consumers from using sunscreens altogether.”
Get inspired by a weekly roundup on living well, made simple. Sign up for CNN’s Life, But Better newsletter for information and tools designed to improve your well-being.