The Best Sunscreens (and Toxic Ones to Avoid)

July 21, 2017
Best sunscreens - Dr. Axe

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)

EWG sunscreen analysts even put together a list of eight safer sunscreens that are cheaper and widely available in retail, drug and big box stores across the country. This list is especially helpful if you’re on vacation and forgot your favorite sunscreen at home.

Here is the list of EWG sunscreen picks that are widely available:

  • Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+
  • Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Baby, SPF 50
  • Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50
  • Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+
  • Goddess Garden Organics Facial Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
  • CeraVe Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 45
  • Bare Republic Clearscreen Sunscreen Gel, Sport, SPF 30
  • Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50

EWG Sunscreens: 8 Best Sunscreens That Are Cheap & Widely Available 

EWG sunscreen ratings serve as a lifeline for people who want to use sunscreen without all of the toxic ingredients. For more than a decade, EWG (the non-profit Environmental Working Group) takes on the annual task of sifting through sunscreen label claims, ingredient lists and scientific studies analyzing what’s really in those sunblock bottles.

Unfortunately, many of the highest-rated sunscreens aren’t readily available in chain grocery and drug stores, meaning it can me a little tricky finding a safe and effective sunscreen if you’re on the road and forgot yours at home. (Did I mention that in America, 75 percent of sunscreens are toxic and/or don’t work?)

With that in mind, the EWG sunscreen team is at it again, this time releasing a list of the safest, most reasonably priced sunscreens that are widely available in box stores around the country.

Now, to be clear, I believe the sun can be incredibly healing in the right dose, especially when it comes to avoiding vitamin D deficiency. But you don’t want to overdo it and suffer a damaging burn.

EWG scientists tapped its 2017 Guide to Sunscreens to ID a short list of the sunscreen products providing the biggest bang for your buck.

EWG sunscreen - Dr. AxeUsing the 2017 report, scientists compiled a list of sunblock that:

  • Ranges in price from $10 to $20
  • Received “best” ratings from the EWG sunscreen guide
  • Are widely available in mainstream retailers and box stores

Here is the list of EWG sunscreen picks that are widely available:

  • Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50
  • Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+
  • Bare Republic Clearscreen Sunscreen Gel, Sport, SPF 30
  • Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Baby, SPF 50
  • Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+
  • CeraVe Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 45
  • Goddess Garden Organics Facial Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
  • Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50 (7)

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. (8)

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 (9)

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.) (10)
  • 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. (11)
  • 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.
Best sunscreens - Dr. Axe

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. (12) 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. (13)
best sunscreens - dr. axe

 

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

Josh Axe

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32 Comments

  1. Maria on

    I have a question.. I’m always low in vitamin D, due to the fact that I’m allergic to it. I break out in a rash when my skins is exposed to sun.. I always tried to cover with rush guard shirts and hats when I go to the beach, but driving around can be difficult too. I am olive skin color and also the only one in my family with this problem. At this time I have been diagnosed with immune hemoletyc anemia, I don’t know if they are related. What sunscreen do you recommend, since every thing I have being using are toxic. I would love to hear your opinion. Thanks!

    Reply
  2. Katya Dennis on

    I wish a website on healthy ways of doing things would discuss the use of natural cold pressed oils and butters (shea, cocoa) to extend the time fair skinned people can be in the sun, instead of giving the impression that only manufactured, processed things can do that. I’m searching high and low for this information.

    Reply
  3. Sherry Jaskowiak on

    What about Absolutely Natural … I’ve been using it on myself and kids for years. Would like to know if it was included in the study or not and if so, why it is not considered safe

    Reply
  4. Janice on

    Sunscreens. I have known for years that most had a list of unhealthy and even toxic ingredients. Several years ago I was cooking to a crisp while selling at a swap meet. I went in search of sunscreens and I found only one brand (you usually get through a rep) and they had 2 types. I got the least expensive which was a spray. I sprayed it on fairly liberally and it melted my nail polish. I was horrified. How could any company use ingredients in a mix for skin that would melt nail polish? I know that could not be good.

    Reply
  5. Laura Oliver on

    I am a consultant with Beautycounter and our Sunscreen lotion and stick are rated with EWG. I am wondering if you are familiar with Beautycounter products or if our sunscreen was left off of your safe list for another reason. I appreciate your input.

    Reply
  6. Lori on

    Where do you get these off the wall brands of sunscreens? I never heard of any of them. They should list links on where to buy them.

    Reply
  7. Sandra McKenna on

    I am wondering about the sun screen/ sunblock made by Melaleuca.
    They claim their products are safe…. curious what you think!

    Reply
  8. Tomas on

    Dear dr. Axe,

    I do agree with most what you have written here. Only about avoiding sun exposure at noon, might be controversial. Here is an article by Mark Sisson: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-to-engineer-a-successful-day-of-sunbathing/

    He claims that you should expose yourself at noon, when the sun is the strongest, as you will have more UVB-radiation, which is less during the morning or evening, when UVA is strongest. UVB indeed causes sunburn, but also helps producing Vitamin D. UVA isn’t causing sunburn, but goes deeper and will actually reduce Vitamine D production. Also is UVA radiation a bigger risk for diseases. You need both UVA and UVB and the best time is at noon, at least according to Mark Sisson.

    I am interested in your response.

    Reply
  9. Lisa on

    The links go to products on Amazon, never buy anything like sunscreen on Amazon, the last beauty product I purchased there was tampered with by the seller. Many of them dilute and/or create counterfeit products to make more money. They also tamper with them by changing the expiration dates and you have no way of knowing because nothing sold through Amazon is regulated in any way.

    You can’t trust the reviews either, many of the reviews are faked. You have to buy from a reputable retailer if you want you products to be safe. Amazon is made of up 3rd party sellers so it’s just by chance if you get a reputable one or not and the odds are not in your favor.

    Reply
  10. Cheryl on

    Growing up I spent time playing in the sun when I was young. I was not a “sun worshiper” like may other teen age girls. I couldn’t just lay there. I noticed that in my late teens my skin became more sensitive to burning. Fast forward to my late 40’s when I began to juice for health and drank lots of carrot juice. I began to notice that my skin seemed to tan quicker and deeper, no more burning. This was fantastic as I really love being out on our boat in summer in the San Juan Islands.
    I read somewhere that carrot juice is like sunscreen from the inside. I wonder if you knew much about this.
    With much gratitude,
    Cheryl

    Reply
  11. linda on

    With so much out there about nutrition that is conflicting this article is a VERY interesting contrast to what consumer report has to say about natural sunscreen.
    Being that I swim laps in summer in Arizona and lap lane hours are not the best for sun protection I have started wearing rash guard and swim tights and rotate using natural vs chemical sunscreens :)

    Reply
  12. Rita on

    Hi Dr Axe,

    What’s the used by date of the homemade sunscreen?

    2 tbsp Zinc Oxide, powder or cream?

    Shea butter raw, organic?

    Thank you

    Reply
  13. Penny on

    So, it’s extremely hot here in the Mid-west. Our heat index for this week is to be around 107-110 for several days. I LOVE the sun and love to be warm. However, as a 50 year old, I developed skin cancer from sun damage and was diagnosed in November. I am not sure how this skin cancer occurred, since I used to tan as a teenager. I have not laid out for over 30 years. But here’s the thing: last week I was prescribed some skin cancer gel (Picato), to try instead of having my skin sprayed with liquid nitrogen. I had a serious allergic reaction and chemical burn from this gel. So now, I’m still doctoring this burn, keeping it covered and using Silvadean cream.Just driving the car and feeling the sun beat on my wounded hand makes me crazy.

    I want to use a safe sunscreen on the rest of my skin, but after this reaction to the cancer gel, I’m afraid to try anything. I have many allergies to scents, lotions, sprays. The one thing I love to use is Lubriderm . I also love Vanicream lite lotion. But, I have not seen either of these with sunscreen. Any suggestions as I am quite the mess? !!

    Reply
  14. jo makaylor on

    It didn’t mention on the list, but definitely deserve a pot on the best sunscreen list.

    I surf in the summer and ski in the winter and one of the best sunscreens I’ve used is the Biore sarasara http://amzn.to/2aJtxHZ. I was introduced to it by a friend when skiing in Hokkaido couple years ago. Highly recommended if you’re in the market for one.

    Reply
  15. Bud Gillan on

    EWG’s Listings of Recommended Sunscreens includes all of Raw Elements products with a 1 Rating. You left Raw Elements out, Certified Organic Zinc Oxide Sunscreen. I am sure it was a slipup. Please add it to your list. It is EWG Top Ten list as well. ANd has been for several years.

    Reply
  16. Ash on

    Thank you for this informative article Dr. Axe. It is very helpful and life-changing. After reading this, I am changing sunscreens.

    Reply
  17. Madelyn Finley on

    This is all very helpful the k you so much but I was also thinking about the effects sunscreen has on our oceans? Just a thought

    Reply

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