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.
But there’s just one problem. In America, most sunscreens on the market simply aren’t offering an adequate shield from the sun. And in fact, many sneaky label claims may leave customers thinking they’re more protected than they really are.
It all comes down to the fact that America’s sunscreen regulations are weak and inadequate. In comparison, Europe has a more robust list of approved sunscreen ingredients, including ones that more effectively protect against UVA rays, the type more prone to cause melanoma compared to UVB rays.
“Europe has stronger standards for their sunscreens,” explains Carla Burns, sunscreen research and database analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Here’s the major difference. Products sold in Europe need to offer proportional UVA and UVB protection for a more balanced and comprehensive protection from excess sun, Burns explains.
But this UVA/UVB ratio isn’t required in the U.S. “The current FDA standards for UVA protection are so weak, that our analysis of the sunscreens in this year’s guide showed that 75 percent of the products we reviewed would not meet the European standards for UVA protection.”
Adding to concerns about sunscreen safety are the recent results of an FDA-led January 2020 study finding that “chemical sunscreen ingredients are systemically absorbed after one application, and some ingredients can stay in the blood for at least 3 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 that discovered 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,” says public health expert Nneka Leiba, EWG’s vice president of healthy living science. “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 2020 report released in May found that nearly 75 percent of sunscreens don’t work and/or contain concerning ingredients that are readily absorbed by the body.
EWG’s 14 years of sunscreen ingredient analysis suggests that while there have been major improvements over the last decade, the vast majority of sunscreens available for purchase in the U.S. still contain damaging chemicals or fail to offer enough protection against ultraviolet rays.
Of the more than 1,300 SPF sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms analyzed in the updated EWG Sunscreen Database, only 25 percent offer adequate protection and are free of worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a suspected hormone disruptor linked to endometriosis, low sperm count and other health threats.
The good news is that after being behind the game for decades, the Food and Drug Administration has been taking positive steps to improving the state of sunscreen available in America. While the agency continues testing, the COVID-19 situation is delaying the finalizing of rules that would make sunscreen safer.
So for now, the onus is still on the consumer to find sunscreen that’s safer and actually works.
Are You Using the Best Sunscreens?
Over the past decade, the FDA has made multiple proposals to strengthen UVA protection in sunscreen products, but none has been made law. Last year, the FDA again proposed changes to require greater UVA protection, but they’ve been postponed.
For the time being, inferior products will remain on store shelves, despite scientific evidence that the most common ingredients are absorbed into the blood at levels that can cause harm, lack adequate safety testing and are formulated into products that may not adequately protect users from dangerous UVA rays.
The FDA proposed monograph was supposed to be finalized last year. “If adopted as written, that monograph would have ensured that all sunscreens sold in the U.S. would have been safer, providing stronger regulations around ingredient safety, UVA protection and capping high SPF values,” Burns explains. “Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, the monograph has not yet passed and language was included in the CARES Act, passed early this year, that maintains the status quo of our sunscreen industry and keeps inferior products on store shelves.”
Stay tuned to see how this pans out for the 2021 season.
Here’s more on the UVA dilemma…
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.
The FDA is finally voicing concern about the role of UVA rays in the development of skin cancer. It stated that “UVA exposure is a significant concern,” and high SPF products currently on the market may expose users to “excessively large UVA doses.”
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 2020 best sunscreens report, the group analyzed the ingredients and labeling claims of more than 1,300 products with SPF, including 750 sport and beach sunscreens. So what are the best sunscreens out there? Let’s take a look.
The Best Sunscreens of 2020, Beach & Sport
“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:
- 365 Everyday Value Mineral Sunscreen Sport Lotion, SPF 30
- All Good Sunstick, Unscented, SPF 30
- Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Badger Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 30
- Badger Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30 & 35
- Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
- Block Island Organics Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Butterbean Organics Simple Healthy Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30+
- Just Skin Food Baby Beach Bum Sunscreen Stick, SPF 31
- Kabana Organic Skincare Green Screen Sunscreen Lotion, Original, SPF 32
- Loving Naturals Clear Body Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Star Naturals Baby Natural Sunscreen Stick, SPF 25
- Summer Lotion Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- SunBioLogic Men’s Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Sport, SPF 30
- thinksport Body & Face Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- thinksport Kids Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+
- thinkbaby Body & Face Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- Waxhead Sun Defense Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
Also of note, many sunscreen powerhouse brands are now offering safer options, although not all of these brands’ offerings are considered safer EWG picks. (Scores of 0-2 are considered safer, while higher scores indicate poorer safety ratings.) EWG has been analyzing and pushing for safer sunscreens for more than a decade, and we are seeing positive shifts even within big brands. For instance, the following products made EWG’s best sunscreen list with a score of “2:”
- Banana Boat Kids Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
- Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50
- Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Clear Body Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Clear Face Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Best Sunscreens, Non-Mineral
This year’s rankings also includes the top picks for non-mineral brands, if you’re someone who can’t get onboard with the zinc oxide or titanium dioxide-based sunscreens. Most of these aren’t rated quite as safe as the above list, but you can compare to see what fits your needs best:
- Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Lotion, Aloe Vera, SPF 30
- Australian Gold Little Joey Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
- Banana Boat Kids Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
- Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- CVS Health 30 Ultra Sheer Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Daylogic Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport High Endurance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- JASON Facial Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 20
- Kiss My Face Sport Hot Spots Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Clear Face/Body Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- No-Ad Suncare General Protection Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15
- Panama Jack Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Wegmans Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
The Best Sunscreens of 2020, Moisturizers
For its 2020 sunscreen report, EWG rated these products to be among the best:
- Algenist Alive Prebiotic Balancing Moisturizer, SPF 15
- Andalou Naturals Men Face Guard Daily Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Ao Skincare 6000X Elemental Screen, SPF 30
- ATTITUDE Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
- Biossance Squalane + Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Block Island Organics Natural Face Moisturizer, SPF 30
- Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer, All Skin Types, SPF 15
- DeVita Skin Care Solar Protect Lotion, SPF 30
- Juice Beauty Oil-Free Moisturizer, SPF 30
- Kari Gran Essential SPF Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 28
- Keys KPRO Tinted Moisturizer with Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Loving Naturals Daily UV Cream, Unscented, SPF 20
- MDSolarSciences Mineral Creme, SPF 30
- Raw Elements Daily Lifestyle Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Solara Suncare Clean Freak Nutrient Boosted Daily Sunscreen, Unscented, SPF 30
- Suntegrity 5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Tinted Face Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Sunumbra Daily Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15+
- Supergoop! Daily Correct CC Cream Lotion, SPF 35
- thinksport Everyday Face Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Naturally Tinted, SPF 30+
- White & Elm Everyday, SPF 15
If you’re looking for lip balm with SPF protection, EWG suggests these 15 picks.
Most Toxic Sunscreens to Avoid
Here’s a big takeaway that’ll make things somewhat less complicated. EWG recommends avoiding all spray sunscreens. Not only are they very difficult to apply effectiveness and evenly, but there’s some concern the ingredients could potentially cause irreversible lung damage. The truth is, the ingredients just haven’t been tested in the aerosol capacity for long-term impact on human health, like so many other everyday chemicals, unfortunately.
When it comes to sunscreens, here are some of the other worst overall offenders scoring in the Red Zone (10) for major safety concerns. Overall, these products tested poorly in the EWG analysis and are considered a bad choice for sun protection. Just remember, this list is not exhaustive. To check your favorite sunscreen or to peruse the database, click here.)
- Walgreens Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Sun Bum Moisturizing Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
- Panama Jack Sunscreen Continuous Spray, SPF 100
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 85+
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100+
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+
- Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60+
- Neutrogena Age Shield Face Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 110
- Equate Sport Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Equate Beauty Ultra Light Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- CVS Health Ultra Sheer Lotion, SPF 100
- CVS Health Sensitive Skin Sun Lotion, SPF 60+
- CVS Health Ultra Protection Sun Lotion, SPF 100
- Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- COOLA Classic Body Sunscreen Spray, Peach Blossom, SPF 70
- Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Banana Boat Ultra Defense Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Banana Boat Kids MAX Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Australian Gold Botanical Natural Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
Key Findings in EWG’s Sunscreen Report
- Fewer than half of the products in this year’s guide contain active ingredients that the FDA has suggested are safe and effective.
- Your skin is your body’s largest immune system organ. Excess sun exposure can impair the immune system, but many sunscreen chemicals are readily absorbed into the bloodstream, where they could cause ill effects, too.
- Stanford University dermatologists concluded that people who relied solely on sunscreens for sun protection got more sunburns than people who reported infrequent sunscreen use but wore hats and clothing to shield themselves from the sun.
- An EWG analyst warns: “Sunscreen is only one form of sun protection and should not be relied on alone. It’s also important to wear sunglasses, hats and t-shirts, stay in the shade, and avoid the midday sun.”
- Despite strong evidence to show sunscreens can’t even prevent skin cancer, it’s still legal for most sunscreens to make cancer prevention claims.
- The rate of new melanoma cases amongst American adults has tripled since the 1970s.
- Evidence is increasing that UVA exposure causes skin cancer. Despite that, sunscreen rules requiring adequate UVA protection are lacking.
- FDA proposed to strengthen UVA requirements for U.S. sunscreen, but the improvements were put on hold as part of the legislation passed within a coronavirus stimulus bill.
- Meaningful sunscreen safety improvements are at least another year away now.
- About 75 percent of sunscreen products reviewed by EWG either didn’t work adequately to protect from UV rays or they contained dangerous ingredients. Some of the most worrisome ingredients include oxybenzone, one of the known endocrine disruptors, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin and possibly lead to skin tumors.
- Oxybenzone is in widespread use in American chemical-based sunscreens. Lab testing shows skin penetration rates of 1 to 9 percent. That’s concerning, given the fact that it acts like an estrogen in the body and is linked to abnormal sperm function in animal studies and endometriosis in studies of women. Oxybenzone also acts as a skin allergen in a significant number of people. (So does methylisothiazolinone, a common sunscreen preservative found in the majority of products surveyed.) Thankfully, places like Hawaii and Key West have banned oxybenzone in sunscreen due to its ability to bleach and kill coral reefs.
- The FDA is also proposing banning sunscreens that also contain bug repellent.
- In a previous EWG review, about 40 percent of sunscreens contained vitamin A ingredients. This type of ingredient can react with UV rays and increase the risk of skin tumors, according to government animal testing data.
- Scientists don’t know for sure if sunscreen helps prevent melanoma. In fact, as EWG notes in its executive summary of the sunscreen guide, “Sun exposure appears to play a role in melanoma, but it is a complex disease for which many questions have not been answered. One puzzling fact: Melanomas do not usually appear on parts of the body that get daily sun exposure.”
- Be wary of ultra high SPF claims. There are more of them today than several years ago. The U.S. hasn’t approved modern sunscreen ingredients that would do a better job of broad-spectrum protection. Because of this, UVA protection is often lacking in SPF 70+ products. In other developed countries, SPF is usually capped at 50.
- Avoid spray sunscreens. It’s very difficult to apply in a thickness that will provide adequate protection, plus, it increases the risk you’re sending potentially damaging sunscreen chemicals directly into your lungs (and the lungs of everyone sitting around you.)
- Nearly 25 percent of sunscreens tested in 2020 were sprays.The FDA is proposing that all sprays and powders undergo additional proposes that all spray products undergo additional safety testing to ensure they can’t be inhaled deep into the lungs and cause irreversible damage.
- FDA pilot testing uncovered spray sunscreen products that would not meet proposed standards.
- EWG recommends that consumers avoid all spray and powder sunscreen products.
- If you’re opting for sunscreen for protection from overexposure to the sun, EWG advises to opt for mineral-based sunscreen products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide active ingredients and avoid products with ingredients like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
- If you avoid the sun, get your vitamin D levels checked at your healthcare provider. A growing number of the population is deficient, thanks to sunscreens and spending more time indoors.
The good news is you can get enough vitamin D and protect yourself from burns without always turning to sunscreen.
How to Avoid Too Much Sun (Without Sunscreen)
Getting some sun exposure is vital for good health because it helps your body create vitamin D. There are multiple ways to get vitamin D, but your best bet is to get it from standing in the sun or eating vitamin D-rich foods. In fact, sitting in the sun unexposed for about 10 minutes helps your body create roughly 10,000 units of natural vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, heart disease depression, osteoporosis and many other ailments, so it’s important to get enough. Like almost anything, though, you can get too much of a good thing and want to make sure you avoid sunburns.
You should consider sunscreen your last resort to prevent sunburns, though. In fact, there’s no clear evidence that using sunscreens actually prevents skin cancer — including in the best sunscreens — and some ingredients may actually fuel skin cancer.
Avoiding overexposure during peak sunlight hours, use sunglasses, and sun-protective hats and clothing (Solumbra is a good brand). These things reduce your risk of burns without sunscreen.
- Thankfully, the FDA is finally proposing sweeping new rules that would make sunscreens in the U.S. safer and more effective. However, there’s a huge chemical lobby pushing back against that, and a coronavirus relief package included language that pushed the changes off.
- When direct sunlight hits our skin under peak conditions, our bodies manufacture high levels of vitamin D. Not getting enough vitamin D has been linked to all sorts of health problems, including cancer, arthritis, depression and other diseases.
- However, you can get too much of a good thing, which is why it’s important to take steps to prevent overexposure and sunburns.
- There is no perfect sunscreen, and this is clear from EWG’s 14th Guide to Sunscreens report. Mineral sunscreens generally rate safer, but they often contain nanoparticles that are not tightly regulated or studied for long-term impact on human or aquatic health. Chemical sunscreens often contain hormone-disrupting chemicals or even an ingredient that could trigger skin cancer. Still, EWG’s report helps consumers seeking sunscreen find safer choices while avoiding the most poorly rated brands.
- Sunscreen should be used as a last resort. Sun-protective measures like hats, sunglasses, seeking shade and avoiding peak sunlight for extended periods of time should be used before turning to sunscreen, and when you do choose sunscreen, make sure it’s one of the best sunscreens.