Surprisingly few Americans lather on sunscreen while enjoying the sunshine (a recent study found just 14 percent of men and 30 percent of women regularly put it on before going in the sun for more than an hour), but what's even more concerning is that those who do probably aren't all that protected from harmful rays.
According to the Environmental Working Group's review of more than 1,700 SPF products, 80 percent offer "inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients," like oxybenzone (some research suggests it can penetrate skin and upset the hormone system) and retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A that may boost sun sensitivity and speed the growth of tumors). Products from brands like Coppertone, CVS and Banana Boat contain both, but the worst of the bunch is Neutrogena, Time reports. Some 80 percent of its products contain oxybenzone, a third contain retinyl palmitate, and Neutrogena's "hypoallergenic" baby sunscreens contain the preservative methylisothiazolinone, which is considered unsafe in leave-on products in Europe.
Neutrogena is also one of several brands whose products claim to have SPF levels up to 100 or beyond, though the FDA says protection only reaches up to SPF 50. They "try to trick you into believing they'll prevent sun damage. Don't trust them," the EWG says in its Hall of Shame.
The report notes it's important to keep in mind that SPF, or "sun protection factor," refers only to protection against UVB rays that cause sunburns, but not against UVA rays that can cause skin cancer, impede the immune system, and speed skin aging. That's why it's important to cover exposed skin and limit your time in the sun. You should also avoid spray sunscreens that, though convenient, "pose serious inhalation risks [and] make it too easy to apply too little or miss a spot," the EWG says.
The good news? There are safe and effective products on the market from brands like California Baby, Badger and True Natural. Check out the best products list. (And in related news, men should be extra careful with sunscreen.)