It’s no secret that the sun provides all sorts of health benefits, including helping our bodies manufacture vital vitamin D. With beach season 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.
The issue? All sunscreens are not created equally. In fact, a 2017 report from Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that nearly 75 percent of sunscreens didn’t work. That is to say these sunscreens provide inadequate sun protection and/or they contained harmful ingredients.
This is EWG’s 11th Annual Guide to Sunscreens report, and the results show 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.
And here’s the part that really gets me: About half of the sunscreens sold in the U.S. would not be allowed on the market in Europe, according to Sonya Lunder, lead scientist involved with the sunscreen guide.
Are You Really Using the Best Sunscreens?
The report points to 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, the report highlights the fact that 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. (1, 2)
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. (3)
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 for sun overexposure.
“No product is going to be fully protective and no product will last on your skin for more than two hours max,” explains Lunder. She says 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. More on those later.
In the EWG’s 2017 best sunscreens report, the group analyzed the ingredients and labeling claims of 880 sport and beach sunscreens, 480 SPF-containing moisturizers and 120 SPF-containing lip products.
So what are the best sunscreens out there? Let’s take a look.
The Best Sunscreens of 2017, Beach & Sport
- All Good Unscented Sunstick, SPF 30
- All Terrain AquaSport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- aromatica Calendula Non-Nano UV Protection, SPF 30
- ATTITUDE Family Sensitive Skin Care Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50
- Badger Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 30
- Bare Belly Organics Sunscreen, SPF 30
- California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Drunk Elephant Umbra, Sheer Defense, SPF 30
- Goddess Garden Organics Everyday Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF, 30
- Jersey Shore Cosmetics Anti-Aging Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 35
- Just Skin Food Natural & Organic Sunscreen, SPF30
- Kabana Organic Skincare Green Screen Sunscreen, Original SPF 32
- Kiss My Face Organics Face & Body Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Poofy Organics The Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- Sunology Natural Sunscreen, Body, SPF 50
- Sunology Natural Sunscreen, Face, SPF 50
- ThinkSport Sunscreen, SPF 50+
- Waxhead Sun Defense Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- Zebs Organics Sunscreen, SPF 20 (4)
The Best Sunscreens of 2017, Moisturizers
- Andalou Naturals, All-in-One Beauty Balm, Sheer Tint, SPF 30
- Badger Damascus Rose Face Sunscreen, SPF 25
- Block Island Organics Natural Face Moisturizer, SPF 30
- CyberDERM Every Morning Sun Whip, SPF 25
- Goddess Garden Organics Face the Day Sunscreen & Firming Primer, SPF 30
- Juice Beauty Oil-Free Moisturizer, SPF 30
- SanRe Organic Skinfood Shaded Rose-Solar Healing Facial Cream, SPF 30
- Suntegrity Skincare 5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen, SPF 30 (5)
The Best Sunscreens of 2017, Kid-Friendly
- Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- All Good Kid’s Sunscreen, SPF 30
- All Terrain KidSport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50
- Babytime! by Episenical Sunny Sunscreen, SPF 35
- Badger Baby Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30
- Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Baby, SPF 50
- Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+
- BurnOut KIDS Sunscreen, SPF 35
- California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Caribbean Sol Sol Kid Kare, SPF 30
- Goddess Garden Organics Baby Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Kiss My Face Organics Kids Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50
- Sunology Natural Sunscreen Kids, SPF 50
- Sunumbra Sunkids Natural Sunscreen, SPF 40
- ThinkSport Kids Sunscreen, SPF 50+
- Tom’s of Maine Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- TruKid Sunny Days Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30 (6)
Most Toxic Sunscreens to Avoid
EWG focused even more closely on children’s sunscreens this year, in part because children are more susceptible to certain toxic chemicals during development and because blistering sunburns early in life can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer down the line. While other brands received low scores, EWG specifically called out the following brands because they earned the worst scores. (7)
Worst Sunscreens for Kids
- Banana Boat Kids Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100
- Banana Boat Kids Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Coppertone Foaming Lotion Sunscreen Kids Wacky Foam, SPF 70
- Coppertone Sunscreen Continuous Spray Kids, SPF 70
- Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion Kids, SPF 70
- Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion Water Babies, SPF 70+
- Coppertone Sunscreen Stick Kids, SPF 55
- Coppertone Sunscreen Stick Water Babies, SPF 55
- Coppertone Sunscreen Water Babies Foaming Lotion, SPF 70
- CVS Health Children’s Sunstick Sunscreen, SPF 55
- Equate Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 70
- Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 60+
- Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70+
- Up & Up Kids Sunscreen Sticks, SPF 55 (8)
Key Findings in EWG’s Sunscreen Report
- About half the sunscreen products sold in the U.S. wouldn’t pass the more stringent European standards because they don’t filter enough UVA rays.
- Despite strong evidence to show sunscreens can even prevent skin cancer, it’s still legal for most sunscreens to make cancer prevention claims.
- Nearly 75 percent of sunscreen products reviewed by EWG either didn’t work adequate 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 possible 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 94 products surveyed.) (9)
- From 2007 to 2017, there has been a 34 percent rise in mineral sunscreens in the United States. These sunscreens tend to block UVA better than chemical sunscreen ingredients and also tend to be rated safer on EWG’s sunscreen database.
- In EWG’s 2010 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. In 2017, the number of surveyed sunscreens containing this worrisome ingredient dropped to 14 percent.
- This is a big takeaway from the report’s executive summary: “There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces cancer risk, particularly for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and a multi-billion dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades.”
- 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 ever SPF 70+ products. In other developed countries, SPF is usually capped at 50.
- I suggest steering clear of spray sunscreens. It’s very difficult to apply in a thickness that will provide adequate protection, plus, it increases the risk you’re sending sunscreen chemicals directly into your lungs (and the lungs of everyone sitting around you.)
- Nearly 30 percent of sunscreens tested were sprays, up from 20 percent in 2007. These sprays pose inhalation risk and are hard to actually apply correctly. (Even the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about spray sunscreens, although the agency hasn’t banned them yet.)
- FDA banned the use of misleading sunscreen bottle claims like “waterproof” and “sweatproof” in 2011, but Lunder says other misleading marketing terms are still in use. These include things like “sun shield” and “age shield.” Lunder says these marketing terms imply full and complete protection, reassuring someone that it’s all they need to protect their skin. That is simply not true. (10)
- If you avoid the sun, get your vitamin D levels checked at your health care 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. You can get vitamin D through supplements or vitamin D-rich foods, but direct sunlight is your best option. (11) 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. (12)
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.
Final Thoughts on the Best Sunscreens
- 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, include 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 11th 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.
Read Next: Make Your Own Homemade Sunscreen
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