Sunscreen, the name itself implies safety. It conjures notions of a product that will shield your sensitive outer layer from the rays of the powerful sun.
Think again, says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that released a report this week stating only 16 percent, or about 128 products, of nearly 800 over-the-counter sunscreens are both "safe and effective."
But the ratings are not based on lab tests. Instead, EWG used approximately 400 peer-reviewed studies of 17 sunscreen chemicals approved for use in the U.S., as well as the safety of sunscreen ingredients liked to 60 industry and government databases on chemical hazards.
Here the five best and the worst on the list:
1. Badger SPF 30
2. Peter Thomas Roth Titanium Dioxide Sunblock SPF 30
3. Sun Spray Sun Screen Neutral SPF 40
4. UV Natural Baby SPF30+ Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
5. Vanicream Sunscreen Sport (formerly Sunscreen SPF 35) SPF 35
1. L'Oréal Dermo-Expertise Line Eraser, Pure Retinol, Daily Treatment with SPF 15
2. B. Kamins Chemist Bio-Maple day cream SPF 15
3. Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion with SPF 15
4. B. Kamins Chemist Day Cream SPF 15
5.Caren et Cie Face Treatment (French Vanilla) SPF 15
Price did not seem to be a factor in the ratings. B. Kamins Chemist Bio-Maple day cream was second to last on the list, but retails for nearly $100, while the top-rated Badger sells for approximately $12.
Many of the products near the bottom of the list were face creams and moisturizers that also include an SPF.
Dr. Linda Franks, director of Gramercy Park Dermatology and clinical assistant professor at New York University School of Medicine, recommends everyone wear a moisturizer with SPF for daily protection, but people should not depend on that protection for extended periods of time in the sun. "Either you need to reapply it or use something stronger in the morning," she said.
Neutrogena and Coppertone, both of which had products that landed in the 'avoid' category, stood by the lab results of all their products. Neutrogena would not comment specifically on the report but stated, "all Neutrogena products undergo extensive testing to ensure safety and efficacy."
The report faulted many sunscreens for having active ingredients that actually breakdown in sunlight and do not actually protect against ultraviolet-A. Coppertone issued this statement defending their broad spectrum products: "Coppertone has formulated 100 percent of their products to be photostable to resist breaking down under exposure to the sun."
The EWG recommends better oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and highlights that the European Union has 29 approved sunscreen chemicals, while the U.S. has only 17.
The FDA has been debating sunscreen safety standards for 29 years, but has yet to finalize mandatory standards. Currently, SPF only refers to ultraviolet-B protection, the spectrum most responsible for skin cancer.
Many products claim to also protect against the longer UVA wavelengths, but the FDA has yet to set standards for products claiming to protect against UVA.
The FDA issued a statement in response to the EWG's report, emphasizing that it will release the final monograph soon, although no exact release date was given.
"The Food and Drug Administration is currently working on regulations for over-the-counter sunscreen drug products that would address, among other things, UVA testing and SPF labeling issues," the agency reported in response to the EWG report. "The regulation is currently in its final clearance. The FDA believes sunscreens are safe and effective when used as directed."
What's a Sun-Lover to Do?
Franks was impressed with the scope of this report but worried it might deter people from using sunscreen all together.
She advises consumers to follow the guidelines of using a tablespoon for the face and a full shot glass of sunscreen for the entire body for optimal protection.
"This study is important in the questions it raises to industry, but it shouldn’t be confusing consumers," Franks said. "The true test is if you can wear it and not burn. If you come in after a couple of hours at the pool or beach, and you feel hot, and your skin is burning, your sunscreen probably isn't working."
Franks recommends Neutrogena products with helioplex, which effectively blocks UVA, as well as Anthelios, a product only currently available in the U.S. in an SPF 15 by L'Oreal, but is available in Europe and Canada in higher a SPF.
She suggests consumers look for physical blockers, such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide, over chemical sunscreens, because they actually block the UV rays from penetrating the skin.
Overall, dermatologists feel the benefits of sunscreen still outweigh the risks. Franks was quick to point out, "they've been saving a lot of sunburn and a lot of sun damage."