Is Your Sunscreen Actually Effective?

May 28th 2015

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) just published a report, which after observing 1,700 sun protection products, found 80 percent were inadequate and/or contained dangerous ingredients. 

As a natural redhead raised in California, sunscreen was a major frenemy of mine. No matter how much I slathered on stepping outdoors everyday, I always managed to miss a few spots, overstay my welcome in the sun, be horribly burned, and increased my chances of getting skin cancer. Now, research looks into which sunscreens are the most effective.

“Our research confirms that not all sunscreens are created equal,” Dave Andrews, senior scientist at EWG, said in a statement. “Many products do not provide enough UVA protection. Some contain hazardous chemicals such as the hormone disrupter oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A linked to skin damage.” 

This is not to say that you should forgo the extra step of slathering sunscreen on before spending a day in the sun. The EWG research helps you be a better consumer and avoid sunscreens that don't provide optimal protection or may even cause some harm. Twenty-one percent the sunscreens analyzed by EWG received high marks (and you can find that list here).

"By themselves, sunscreens might not be effective in protecting you from the most dangerous forms of skin cancer," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains in their sunscreen guide. "However, sunscreen use is an important part of your sun protection program. Used properly, certain sunscreens help protect human skin from some of the sun’s damaging UV radiation."

Types of sunscreen to avoid, according to EWG.

The EWG compiled its 2015 Guide to Sunscreens by analyzing the toxic ingredients, inhalation risks, and inadequacies of sunscreens, SPF-rated moisturizers, and lip balms, among other products. The group put more than 30 items on its "Sunscreen Hall of Shame." Spray sunscreens are on that list because they are potentially dangerous to inhale and do not provide full skin coverage. Also in the "hall of shame" are sunscreens containing oxybenzone, which potentially disrupt the hormone system, and those containing retinyl palmitate, which potentially causes skin cancer. Sunscreens with an SPF values above 50 are also on the list, because according to EWG protection peaks between 30 and 50. (However, the FDA has approved both of these chemicals.)

"It is very misleading to put high SPF numbers on labels because it gives consumers a false sense of security and doesn't offer a lot more protection," Nneka Leiba an EWG analyst said in 2012

Many dermatologists recommend broad spectrum sunscreen products that fight UVB rays, which cause sunburns, and UVA radiation, which can create skin damage. Reapplication is also key to prevent burns: the CDC recommends reapplying every two hours, or after swimming, sweating or drying off. Sunscreen users should also be aware of the expiration date on the bottle as expired sunscreen looses effectiveness.

The general push for safer personal care products.

The EWG isn't the first to draw attention to potential problems with certain sunscreen products either. ATTN: recently interviewed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a group that aims to expose the risks of chemicals in personal care products (sunscreen included). The Campaign for Safe Chemicals supports these efforts and even has a search tool on its site that enables users to see what health risks their products contain. 

"I think there's a certain level of outrage that comes with the younger population where they simply can't believe it's legal for cosmetic companies to put toxic, cancer-causing chemicals in cosmetics and get away with it," Janet Nudelman, the program and policy director for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, previously told ATTN:. "So they are looking for the safer brands."​

The simple, inexpensive way to dodge the sun.

Oncologist Dr. David B. Samadi recently wrote that some sunscreen products are better than others but that staying out of the sun remains the greatest way to prevent skin cancer.

"Ultimately, the best sunscreen involves staying in the shade and wearing protective accessories such as a hat and sunglasses," Dr. Samadi wrote. "You can still get a great tan, even in the shade. This is especially important when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest, which is between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m."

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