It’s no secret that the sun (in moderate doses) provides all sorts of health benefits, including helping our bodies manufacture vital vitamin D. With warmer weather right around the corner, though, many people are looking for the best sunscreens to cut their risk of sun overexposure, sunburns and possibly skin cancer
Environmental Working Group’s 15th annual Guide to Sunscreens is a mix of good and bad news when it comes to the state of sunscreens sold in American and beyond. For instance, oxybenzone — a suspected hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed into the body — is now present in 40 percent of the 1,800 products EWG investigated. While that may seem high, consider this: two years ago, about 60 percent of sunscreens contained this concerning chemical.
In December, the National Toxicology Program released findings linking oxybenzone exposure to a higher risk of thyroid tumors in female rats. And at the end of March, the European Commission, which reviews ingredient safety in Europe, published a final opinion finding oxybenzone unsafe for use at current levels.
“Yet again, the sunscreen market is flooded with products that use potentially harmful ingredients and provide poor UVA protection,” said Leiba. “EWG’s guide is one of the only tools available to help consumers find products that provide adequate protection and are made without ingredients that may pose health concerns.
“U.S. sunscreens will not sufficiently improve until the Food and Drug Administration sets stronger regulations, restricts the use of harmful chemicals and approves new active ingredients that offer stronger UVA and UVB protection without concern of causing harm,” says Nneka Leiba, EWG vice president of Health Living Science.
Sunscreen Chemicals Build Up in Your Blood
The effects of sunscreen may linger longer than expected, too. An FDA-led 2020 study found that “chemical sunscreen ingredients are systemically absorbed after one application, and some ingredients can stay in the blood for at least three weeks.”
The sunscreen chemicals tested include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate, and all six active ingredients tested readily absorbed into the bloodstream of humans in the study — and at concentrations that surpass an important FDA safety threshold.
This builds on previous research showing that sunscreen chemicals hit the bloodstream within a day of using them — and at levels high enough to prompt a government investigation on safety.
“We slather these ingredients on our skin, but these chemicals haven’t been adequately tested,” Leiba says. “This is just one example of the backward nature of product regulation in the U.S.”
Beyond safety issues is another question: Does sunscreen even work? Environmental Working Group’s found that nearly 75 percent of sunscreens don’t work and/or contain concerning ingredients that are readily absorbed by the body.
Things may be slowing moving in the right direction, but for now, the onus is still on the consumer to find sunscreen that’s safer and actually works.
Are You Using the Best Sunscreens?
A past EWG report cited research of Brian Diffey, PhD, emeritus professor of photobiology at the Institute of Cellular Medicine at Newcastle University. He’s shown that, on average, U.S. sunscreens allow about three times more UVA rays to transfer through skin compared to European sunscreens. In fact, Americans sunscreen choices are fewer and often offer worse UVA protection compared to those available in the European Union.
This matters because UVA rays are more abundant than UVB rays, and UVA damage is more subtle than the sunburns induced mainly by UVB rays. UVA rays can damage your skin invisibly by suppressing the immune system and aging the skin over time; overexposure of these rays are also linked to the development of melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, too.
According to EWG, most sunscreens sold in the U.S. would not be sold in Europe, which sets much more stringent UVA standards.
In the U.S., sunscreen regulations haven’t been updated since 2011. And while the FDA signaled it would take on the issue of UVA exposure, its recent proposal was withdrawn in the first coronavirus relief bill. The agency is due to propose its long-awaited rules on sunscreens again this fall.
Sunscreen Is Only One Tool in the Sun Safety Toolbox
Now, it’s important to note that there is no perfect sunscreen. Many contain harmful chemicals, and even mineral-based ones often contain nanoparticles, minute ingredients that can cross the blood-brain barrier and also harm aquatic life. Beyond that, sunscreen is unique compared to many other personal care products because you coat it thickly onto your skin, often multiple times a day. You don’t get that type of hours-long, skin-absorbing exposure with something like, say, shampoo you quickly wash off.
That’s why it’s very important to look for safer sunscreens if you use them and to recognize that you can’t only rely on sunscreens alone to prevent sun overexposure.
No product is going to be fully protective and no product will last on your skin for more than two hours max, EWG has noted in the past. They recommend thickly applying sunscreen coatings, reapplying every time you’re out of the water and choosing a better product to begin with are all key. But other sun smart methods to avoid overexposures are a must. In fact, sunscreen should actually be your last line of defense against the sun after adopting other more effective measures. More on those later.
In the EWG’s 2021 best sunscreens report, the group analyzed the ingredients and labeling claims of more than 1,800 products with SPF. “The majority of sunscreen products sold in the U.S. don’t offer adequate protection against both UVA and UVB rays,” notes Carla Burns, a senior Healthy Living Science analyst at EWG. “But the good news is there are more than 400 SPF products that meet our rigorous standards.”
So what are the best sunscreens out there? Let’s take a look.
The Best Sunscreens of 2021: For Recreation
“Based on the best current science and toxicology data, we continue to recommend sunscreens with the mineral active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, because they are the only two ingredients the FDA recognized as safe or effective in their proposed draft rules,” Burns says.
Here are some of the most highly rated sunscreens that met EWG’s criteria for safety and effectiveness: