Many sunscreens get low marks from Environmental Working Group

The fourth annual Sunscreen Guide by Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives low marks to the current crop of sunscreen products, with a few notable exceptions. EWG researchers recommend only 39, or 8 percent, of 500 beach and sport sunscreens on the market this season.

Full report here:

Badger SPF 30 Sunscreen received top marks in the EWG Sunscreen Guide.

The reason? A surge in exaggerated SPF claims (SPFs greater than 50) and recent developments in understanding the possible hazards of some sunscreen ingredients, in particular, new government data linking a form of vitamin A used in sunscreens to accelerated growth of skin tumors and lesions.

Industry's lackluster performance and the federal Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) failure to issue regulations for sunscreens lead EWG to warn consumers not to depend on any sunscreen for primary protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Hats, clothing, and shade are still the most reliable sun protection available.

Products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security because most people using them stay out in the sun longer, still get burned (which increases risk of skin cancer), and subject their skin to large amounts of UVA radiation, the type of sunlight that does not burn but is believed responsible for considerable skin damage and cancer. High SPF products, which protect against sunburn, often provide very little protection against UVA radiation. Also, most people don't get the high SPF they pay for: people apply about a quarter of the recommended amount. In everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 really performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and an SPF 15 translates to 2.

"Many sunscreens available in the U.S. may be the equivalent of modern-day snake oil, plying customers with claims of broad-spectrum protection but not providing it, while exposing people to potentially hazardous chemicals that can penetrate the skin into the body," said Jane Houlihan, EWG Senior Vice President for Research. "When only eight percent of sunscreens rate high for safety and efficacy, it's clear that consumers concerned about protecting themselves and their families are left with few good options."

This year, new concerns are being raised about a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, found in 41 percent of sunscreens. The FDA is investigating whether this chemical, when applied to skin that is then exposed to sunlight, may accelerate skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk. FDA data suggest that vitamin A may be photocarcinogenic, meaning that in the presence of the sun's ultraviolet rays, the compound and skin undergo complex biochemical changes resulting in cancer. The evidence against vitamin A is not conclusive, but as long as it is suspect, EWG recommends that consumers choose vitamin A-free sunscreens.

EWG has again flagged products with oxybenzone, a hormone-disrupting compound that penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. Biomonitoring surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have detected oxybenzone in the bodies of 97 percent of Americans tested.

The top-rated sunscreens all contain the minerals zinc or titanium and do not contain a potential hormone disruptor. None of the top-rated products contain oxybenzone or vitamin A and none are sprayed or powdered. In all, EWG researchers assessed 1,400 sunscreen products, including beach and sports lotions, sprays and creams, moisturizers, make-up and lip balms. The 39 top beach and sports products that earned EWG's "green" rating all contain the minerals zinc or titanium. EWG researchers were unable find any non-mineral sunscreens that scored better than "yellow."

The FDA has yet to finalize regulations for sunscreens promised since 1978. FDA officials estimate that the regulations may be issued next October — but even then, they are expected to give manufacturers at least a year, and possibly longer, to comply with the new rules. That means the first federally regulated sunscreens won't go on store shelves before the summer of 2012.

"Both world wars, the creation of Medicare and the planning and execution of the moon landing combined took less time to achieve than FDA's promised sunscreen regulations," said Houlihan. "Meanwhile, more than one million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. This could be the poster child for government inaction."

See how sunscreens rated:

Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Filed under: Gear News, People & Organizations

Related Content



Bill S
4,419 reviewer rep
6,010 forum posts
June 14, 2010 at 8:28 p.m. (EDT)

It is rather disturbing to find that the maximum rating for any of the recommended sunblocks is only 30 or so. Those of us who go to high altitude regularly generally find SPF 30 woefully inadequate. And I have found in equatorial regions (Kilimanjaro, for example) that certain drugs (like the antimalarial you take prophylactically) make you more sensitive to UV (it even says so on the information sheet that comes with the prescription). Maybe it's back to the old days when we used to use Clown White (basically pure zinc oxide). Yeah, you look like a clown, but it's better than burning, and in the case of many of us who spent many years getting "healthy tans" and are now paying for it with regular visits to the dermatologist, maybe it reduces the number of necessary visits, spritzes of liquid nitrogen, and slices cut off for biopsies (and sometimes to remove the malignancies).

Even worse is the comment that so many of the products include vitamin A, which might exacerbate the skin damage.

Guess I will be wearing my ski mask and broad brim hat more often.

1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts
June 14, 2010 at 9:39 p.m. (EDT)

Interesting about the Vitamin A, I didn't know that.

I was glad to see 'Badger SPF 30 Unscented' rate well. I have been using it for a few years and I like it.

Plus the little badger on the front of the tube is kinda cool too.

Seems like big tubes for badgers though, they only have to apply it to their nose don't they?

0 reviewer rep
76 forum posts
June 14, 2010 at 11:06 p.m. (EDT)

Seems like big tubes for badgers though, they only have to apply it to their nose don't they?

lol that got a good laugh, I guess I have to agree that this would be a big tube for them.

Is it puncture proof so their claws dont cause problems?

0 reviewer rep
1,142 forum posts
June 14, 2010 at 11:34 p.m. (EDT)

I just bought two tubes of crap.

22 reviewer rep
76 forum posts
June 14, 2010 at 11:52 p.m. (EDT)

lol Alan.

This was the information I have been looking for. Thank you for posting.

This post has been locked and is not accepting new comments