Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Harm than Good?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
For years, we've been told to slather on sunscreen every time we head outdoors so we can protect ourselves from skin cancer. But what we're not told is that sunscreens are not created equal: Some aren't as protective as they claim to be, while others contain potentially hazardous ingredients. That's the consensus of the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment recently updated their Sunscreen Guide for 2010 to help consumers make better choices this summer and beyond.

EWG looked at more than 500 sunscreens on the market, tested them for potency, examined their ingredients, and reviewed the claims made on their packages. The result? A mere 39 out of 500 sunscreens examined meet their guidelines for consumer safety and sun protection.

"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 8 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."

What can we learn from this investigation?

EWG's full report is full of details, including the top ranked brands, a search tool to see how your sunscreen of choice stacks up, and a sunscreen hall of shame. Luckily, they also created a printable one-page guide that summarizes the most important facts you need to shop for a safe and effective sunscreen.

Here are a few of the facts that really caught my eye:
  • A lower SPF is better. Anything higher than SPF 50 encourages consumers to stay out in the sun too long, and these numbers themselves may be misleading, according to the FDA. Stick with an SPF between 15 and 50.
  • Vitamin A is not OK. Eating this vitamin is good, but applying it to your skin probably is not. 41% of sunscreens contain vitamin A, which is listed as "retinyl palmitate" on the ingredients label. Research shows that skin coated with this nutrient develops tumors and lesions sooner, so it's best avoided. I found that my current sunscreen ranked 5 out of 10 (1 is best and 10 is worst), which means to use caution with this particular product. I do plan to switch to one of the top-rated products listed on this report as soon as I use up my current bottle.
It seems that much like food or supplements, regulation is lacking in the sunscreen (and personal care) market and you can't always believe what you read on a label. But doing a little bit of research before you buy can really make a difference in keeping your body healthy!

Are you surprised by these results? Will this report change how you shop for and use sunscreen?

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Sigh. I discovered the EWG a few years ago after reading a book about personal care ingredients. It's depressing. I want to make enough vitamin D to avoid the family history of osteoporosis while living at 42 degrees north. I also want to avoid sunning my skin into leather and getting the melanoma that also runs in my family. Oh, and I don't want my face to sting from my sunscreen - haven't found that brand yet - and I don't want my sunscreen to permeate my body with poisons. Aaargh! Report
Thank you. I feel strongly about putting stuff on my skin/absorbed into my body. I was going to search info on this subject this weekend. Perfect timing. I had squamous skin cancer on my nose so I am cautious. But not knowing how best to help myself is difficult. I am about to go to the report and get new sun block. Thank you Report
I have been wearing sunscreen most of my adult life BUT lately I have discovered I have allergies to sunscreen. I have opted to by the ones made for babies as they give me a lesser reaction. Having said that I've had a horrible reaction lately and I've resorted to hats! I love being out in the sun but as I am a darker skinned asian it takes minutes in the sun for me to be shades darker. I will keep trying but I'll test it on my arm before I put it on my face. Report
Living in the great Southwest, we have sunshine 360 days per year. A great sunscreen is a must. Thanks for providing a link to the research so that we can be properly prepared.
The results really do not surprise me, after all look at the food industry - they try to tell us that Fruit Loops is a "smart choice", why should it be surprising that sunscreen is not as effective as they claim it to be. I often wondered if the increase of skin cancer is actually due to the use of sun screen, now I am becoming even more convinced it is so. Report
I am actually allergic to the sun, which means I break out in burning itching bumps and feel sick when overexposed. During the summer months I am especially vulnerable to the sun's rays. Not only do I have to wear sunscreen all the time, I often have to wear long-sleeved clothing and hats on very hot days... and I still get an allergic reaction! Driving in the car is the worst. I've been wearing SPF 100 and not burning, but still getting sick. According to the list, my current sunscreen is a 7... not good. But I noticed they said the best sun protection is clothing, so I decided to invest in UV protective clothing... jacket, swimsuit, and gloves, as well as laundry treatment that enhances the SPF of clothing. Hopefully that will work... Report
I am an oncology nurse with a family history of skin cancer so I am a stron believer in sun screen. I feel I am at least doing something to hopefully prevent the odds of developing skin cancer! Report
It's about time that people start asking what benefit or harm is being done with the long list of chemicals that constitute sunscreen. My grandma lived to age 82 and never applied a bit of sunscreen and never had skin cancer. She followed some really old-fashioned ideas: wearing a light, long-sleeved shirt, gardening gloves, and a wide-brimmed straw hat when out in the garden or doing work outside. She would enjoy time in the shade when visiting with friends or relatives and in the heat of the day.
Science does NOT have all the answers. It is foolish to think that slathering chemicals all over is "safe". -- I have sensitive skin, so I develop an allergic reaction to many sunscreens I've tried. And, unfortunately, I sunburn fairly easily. It is something I wasn't particularly wise about in my younger years.

I'm glad that someone is finally making note of an area of concern (ie. chemicals) that my family has taken issue with regarding the validity of using and how to make good choices for our health. Report
Holly Batman, I never new mine was so bad. I am finding better sunscreen. Thanks for the heads up. Report
I noticed that the ones in the "avoid" range had links to Amazon to buy them. That being the case, I call their list hogwash - if a particular sunblock is one they say to avoid, they shouldn't be linking to it to buy.

The only reason to do so would be because any product bought through Amazon from one of their links has their referrer tag in it so they can get a kick-back. They're looking out for ways to line their own pockets more than they are consumer interests. Report
I wish that the shoppers guide was more specific. I don't need to know what to wear in the sun while I'm standing in a store in front of the sunscreen display. Since I walk marathons (two halfs last year and a full in about 3 weeks) and am quite fair, sunscreen is a must. The EWG's guide is a good start and welcome, but they need to talk to some athletes and people who don't live on the east coast. Here in the NW, we don't go to the beach but we're outside a lot being active and their materials are not geared toward us. Report
I liked reading about this, and thanks for all the sources. I was especially interested to hear about the efficacies of all the different products that we put on our skin. Plus, I didn't know that oxybenzone was a synthetic estrogen - I really appreciate hearing that, since I'm prone to estrogen-related disorders like breast cancer, so I have to avoid synthetic estrogen.

I like Coach Nicole's feedback on the link posted in #11. I agree that the source seems biased.

I usually boil in pants and long sleeves in the summer because I don't like the way I look in short clothing, but I appreciated this discussion about sunscreen! I read most of the comments, so thank you. Report
I don't really use sunscreen, but it does change the way I think about things that can harm us. (You'd think someone would have checked into this with each new sunscreen that hit the market).

-Note: The only reason I don't use it is because I am in the sun for no more than about 15mins at a time and no more than 30-45 total in a day. (That first 15 minutes is me soaking up my VitD) Report
OK, wait—a lower SPF is NOT better if you still watch how long you stay out in the sun. It's only misleading if you use it as an excuse to not reapply or to stay out too long. Personally, my kids and I are outside all summer long, and I lather them up with SPF 60. But I treat it as I would SPF 15. I reapply every two hours (if we're still out), we wear sun hats and keep hydrated. Report
The only thing that surprised me was that the ones listed as top picks are ones I have never even heard of- except for Badger. Badger products are made in southwestern, NH- just a few miles from me. I have always heard good things about their products. I don't worry too much about sunscreen, since I rarely use it. I usually don't spend a lot of time in the sun. Report
My sister has vitiligo (patches of her skin lose their melanin), and until recently she had to order special sunscreen from Canada because brands available in the USA don't carry ratings for UVA rays, or at least, they didn't when she first saw a dermatologist for it a few years ago. That sunscreen guide mentions which sunscreens do offer that added protection, which is great, because even if you aren't covered in pasty patches like my sister (and I say that with love), everyone should look for broad-spectrum skin protection. Thanks for the article! Report
I burn very easily, so I tend to not use sunscreen. Instead, I wear wide brim hats (fun in the wind), and light-weight long sleeve cover-ups. And I limit time in the direct sunlight. I stay as much as possible in the shade or undercover when I'm outside. Report
Oh, great. Just great. After years of searching, I found a sunblock that doesn't burn my face, and it gets a lousy rating. Now what?

I do try to get out in the yard early or late in the day, wear hats. wrap-around sunglasses, garden gloves, etc. Report
I was surprised about the Vitamin A. Thanks for the heads up on that. Report
Gosh, didn't know about the Vitamin A. My facial products that have SPF (including foundation) are between SPF 15 and SPF 50. Though, in the middle of the day, I usually wash off all the skin care and cosmetics, so perhaps need to reapply the SPF products. What if when we're sweating quite a lot, do we need to wash our faces then reapply back the sunscreen? Report
I'm not really surprised by the results and personally, we try to stay away from sunscreen. We choose to go out in the early morning hours and the evening hours. The only time we use sunscreen is when we know we'll be out for more than 15-20 minutes in the hottest part of the day. Report
I'm a little surprized by these finding; mostly about the vitamin A. I use high SPF because I do burn quickly and I'm only in the sun long enough to get to and from work. When I do gardening and exercise I go out very early and/or just before sunset to avoid the sun. I will be on the look out for retinyl thought to protect my skin even more. Report
I'm newly retired and therefore newly out in the daytime sunshine. I have been using sunscreen several times a day as I have been working out in my garden. I didn't understand why all of a sudden I was having hot flashes & night sweats. After reading the article & looking up my sunscreens I was shocked to learn I have been applying fake estrogen that then gets absorbed into my body!!! I'm throwing this stuff out right now. I've already gone shopping for a replacement. Report
I work under the assumption that most man-made products are likely to have some sort of unhealthy or dangerous element to at least some part of the population. Hats and shadows are my favorite form of sunscreen but when I must be out in the sun, I'll stick with my Neutrogena dry touch. I know it got a bottom rating but it's one of the few affordable sun screens that doesn't burn my eyes. I'm not going to spend $40 on a bottle of sunscreen when I use it infrequently and usually lose the bottle before I finish it.

And yeah, I find the EWG suspect for other reasons than the sunscreen article. Report
The article is very interesting but so is the rebuttal posted in the link below. That article reminds that one should be cautious when reading "research" and that we are responsible for due diligence in investigating what is healthy for us. Report
I tend not to use sunscreen. I will use a total block (zinc oxide) on my ears or shoulders if I know I'm going to be in the sun a long time. I know this is going to be frowned on but I haven't used sunscreens on my daughter either. She naturally has more melanin and darkens quickly rather than burns. Considering we are in Canada and have to supplement with vitamin D, I figure good management is better than chemicals, particularly for a little kid. I remember PABA being questionable as an ingredient and since I have folliculitis and some eczema issues I won't use it. Report
I was very surprised by the results and will be switching to a better rated sunscreen for my family. Thank you for posting!!! Report
Yes, it does surprise me to an extent, but it is always something isn't it? I'll check my current sunscreen for Vitamin A and check out their list too. It will make a difference in how I shop for sunscreen which I use daily. Report
Sunscreen blocks vitamin D. I only use sunscreen if I know I'm going to be outside for an extended period where I might burn. I spend 90% of my life indoors anyway. Report
Wow - I had no idea! I have had places removed and am very cautious when outdoors. I will definitely start using better quality sunscreen! Report
I don't care about getting a Sun Tan any longer. The reason people want one is to show they have enough leisure time to lay around outside instead of being stuck indoors working. It is just the opposite from people in the 1800's who like Scarlett OHara did everything including have umbrellas to keep from getting any tan, that showed the difference from those who worked outside in the fields. Report
I recently heard from a pharmacist that when we cover up our upper bodies (chest neck and face) with sunscreen, that it can block out the vitamin D that we need in our daily lives. I choose not to use sunscreen...instead I use good sense instead...I am an avid golfer, so I wear hats or visors to keep the sun off my face, and I use an umbrella on my push cart to keep me out of the direct sun for most part, and other sensible ideas throughout my day. I actually believe that because our skin is an organ, that it is absorbing all those chemicals in the sunscreen, it kinda freaks me out...! I don't use it. Report
You can find some of these brands at CVS and Walmart if you know to look for them, such as California baby and Bullfrog, they usually only have one type and they are on the bottom or top shelf. They are more expensive. One everyday lotion that isn't listed is Olay complete all day UV moisturizer UV skin shield SPF 15 for sensitive skin, it scores a 4 if you look it up in the Skin Deep database. It scores just as well as the top non-mineral options listed on the EWG site. You can get a good deal on it at Costco, or you can get the generic CVS brand of it which has the same ingredients.

These reports always worry me that they will convince people to not wear sunscreen. I think it's important to put this in perspective. We know for a fact that sun exposure will significantly increase your risk of skin cancer. For the most part, the ingredients in these sunscreens that people are worried about we don't have definitive proof that they will cause cancer in the amount and delivery method used (being applied to the skin), so I think it's always safer to apply sunscreen, and if you can afford the nice organic ones all the better for you, but if not, it's still important to apply sunscreen.

I hope I don't sound preach-y, but my grandfather died from melanoma. Report
Sunscreen makes me break out into major rashes. I have never been able to find one that doesn't do it! So I just try and stay out of the sun and cover up when I go out. Report
I always check the credentials of authors. For the authors of the blog listed in #11, I find that they are 1) a creator (and seller) of cosmetics and 2) a makeup artist. Report
I love the sarcastic humor from the writer of the sunscreen article "hall of shame". So good. Report
wow - great article, thanks for sharing. Report
Thanks for the info! I, unfortunately, have EVERY predisposition to skin cancer: red hair, blue eyes, freckles, fair skin, more than 3 severe sun burns in my life (by severe I mean blisters and second degree burns on my legs). Thus, sunscreen is VERY important to me as an adult, thank you for passing this information along.
A word of caution - some insect repellents amplify the effects of the sun, so that they increase your chance of getting a bad sunburn. So put sunscreen on your skin, and just a little insect repellent on your clothing. Report
Comment # 11 Makes more sense to me, and the EWG is fear-mongering. I'll be keeping my Banana Boat for my rare excursions in the sun. Thanks :) Report
I have been a hat and shirt girl all my life! Report
I finally start wearing it and now this! It is always something! I'm gonna buy a hat and a light long sleeved shirt! Geez! Report
Saying that a higher SPF is bad because it encourages you to stay out in the sun longer is flawed logic. I know to reapply my sunscreen every hour or less (I am very pale). I still burn pretty badly with an SPF between 15 and 50.
My Neutrogena sunscreen ranked pretty low, but I don't have much of a choice, since I'm allergic to aloe, and aloe is in most (if not all) of the ones they recommend. :/

Still, I cover up as much as possible to avoid needing sunscreen too often. I really don't like the feel of sunscreen on my skin. Report
EWG is not associated with the manufacturers of the listed products in their online store. That amazon store was created by EWG as an easy way for people to buy the highly recommended products; it could just as easily contain any and all products. An amazon store like the one on their website is a common method for many companies or nonprofits to earn a small revenue from purchases made by clicking on the links, but by no means is it necessary or the only way to buy either. I have seen all of those sunscreen brands at natural foods stores, such as Whole Foods, for those who asked. Or you could do a search and buy online or contact the manufacturer to find out where they are sold. Hope that helps!

I also read the link posted by Karen42Boys and find it to be quite biased, only consulting with an industry trade group: the Personal Care Products Council, which has an interest in preserving itself and all personal care products as safe and effective.

All in all, we should always do our own research and be wary of claims on both sides of an issue and then make our own decisions based on weighing the information. Report
I just learned a lot! Thanks for the info. Report
Great Article, thanks for sharing! However, after reading the EWG recommendations I am left with this question - where do I buy these products that I have never, ever heard of? Report
Read the link that Karen42Boys posted. It is very well written.

Really, you have to look at the source of the article. The EWG is not a scientific organization. They are lobbyists. The sunscreens that they recommend are ones that you buy using links from their page. Of course they are going to not recommend any thing else.

I will continue to use my Neutrogena sunscreens, since they work for me. I have sensitive skin, so I am picky about what I use. Report
Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? Unfortunately, no. But, yes, I'll be using this guide for sunscreen purchases in the future. Report
i read about this report previously. here's a well-written response to the EWG's findings. Report
I've never used sunscreen. When I lived in the desert (24 years) I covered up with light clothing and wore a broad-brimmed hat. I've just never liked stuff on my skin. I KNOW that clothing doesn't block all the uv rays, but we aren't moles, either, and we are meant to live in the light (not cook ourselves, of course--I've never subscribed to the 'tan is better' fashion, either).

Actually, I'm rather surprised it took anyone so long to study this product line. Report
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