The Science of Sustainability

Screening Sunscreens: Environmental Working Group's 2012 Report

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colorful bottles of different brands of sunscreen

Photograph courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik via Creative Commons

I’m one of those grocery shoppers who flips a package around to check the ingredients on a label before buying it for the first time. Checking food packages is easy, because I expect to see only recognizable simple ingredients. What about sunscreen? How can you tell if it’s safe?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has done extensive research to evaluate the effectiveness and safety of over 1800 sunscreens on the market so you don’t have to. Their Sixth Annual 2012 Sunscreen Guide lists the best and worst sunscreens. It’s worth a look to make sure your sunscreen isn’t in their “Hall of Shame.” The EWG also provides detailed information about potentially harmful sunscreen ingredients.

There is general concern over the large number of sunscreens with exaggerated SPF claims. The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) indicates the level of protection that a sunscreen offers against UVB — the ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn. For instance, SPF 15 sunscreen protects against 93% of the sun’s UVB rays and SPF 50 protects against 98%. Users of high-SPF sunscreens often increase their risk of sun damage by staying out in the sun longer with a single application.

Many of these high-SPF sunscreens provide little protection from UVA rays, which are more deeply penetrating and 30-50 times more prevalent than UVB rays. Research shows that UVA radiation causes skin damage and increases the risk of cancer. It is important to use a sunscreen with zinc oxide, titanium oxide or 3% avobenzone so it protects against both UVA and UVB.

People also don’t use enough sunscreen to get the benefit of the SPF rating promised on the bottle. According to the EWG, people typically use 25% of the recommended amount so SPF 100 to 15 sunscreens actually perform like SPF 3.2 to 2.

The EWG is concerned about retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in one-fourth of sunscreens. It’s an anti-aging ingredient used as a stabilizer. Although research is not definitive, there is evidence that retinyl palmitate may promote cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. The EWG recommends that you avoid sunscreens with vitamin A (any form of retinyl or retinol).

You also need to be careful of products with oxybenzone, found in more than half of beach and sport sunscreens. It penetrates the skin and has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 97 percent of Americans tested had oxybenzone in their bodies and additional research is underway to understand how this affects our health. The EWG advises against using sunscreens with oxybenzone, although the Personal Care Products Council disputes these safety allegations.

Discouraged? All these troubling facts may tempt you to give up on sunscreen altogether. However, public health agencies still recommend using sunscreen, just not as your first line of defense. Hats, clothing and shade provide the most reliable sun protection. When that isn’t enough, use the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide to help you select a relatively safe sunscreen.

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Category: Blog, Health, Sustainable Health

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Jennifer Huber

About the Author ()

Jennifer Huber is a medical imaging scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory with more than 20 years of experience in academic science writing. She received her Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California Santa Barbara. She is also a freelance science writer, editor and blogger, as well as a science-writing instructor for the University of California Berkeley Extension. Jennifer has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of her life and she frequently enjoys the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.