Hundreds of Sunscreens Don’t Work or Have Unsafe Ingredients, Annual Review Finds
Sam Nickerson

Summer is fast approaching, which means it’s time to stock up on sunscreen to ward off the harmful effects of sun exposure. Not all sunscreens are created equally, however.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group released its 13th annual Guide to Sunscreens this month, which rated the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,300 sun protection products on the market. It found that two-thirds of those products either contained chemicals the Food and Drug Administration says could be potentially harmful or provide inferior protection from the sun.

EWG experts found that only 40 percent of the products it examined — including sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms — have active ingredients that meet draft safety regulations developed by the FDA in February.

According to the FDA, just two of the 16 common active ingredients in most sunscreens, zinc and titanium oxides, have been tested enough to show they are safe and effective. Another two ingredients, PABA and trolamine salicylate, were found to be unsafe according to the proposed standards, while the remaining 12 did not have enough data for the FDA to indicate whether or not they worked and could be considered safe.

“The good news is that the FDA has reaffirmed what EWG has advocated for 13 years: Based on the best current science, the safest and most effective sunscreen active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” said Nneka Leiba, director of EWG’s Healthy Living Science program, in a press release. “It’s long past time that the chemicals used in sunscreens were tested to show that they will not harm our health.”

Many of the chemical ingredients were not tested enough because they had been grandfathered in when the FDA set more rigorous testing regulations in the 1970s, Time reported, as the belief then was that creams, lotions and sprays did not penetrate deep enough beyond the surface of the skin. A recent FDA study, however, confirmed that common sunscreen ingredients avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule all end up in the bloodstream at levels beyond the threshold for further testing.

Oxybenzone is an allergen and potential endocrine disruptor that can have adverse effects on human growth, development and reproduction, USA Today reported, and could be damaging coral reefs. Oxybenzone was found in more than 60 percent of the sunscreens reviewed by the EWG.

Time also reported that sunscreen manufacturers have put stronger chemicals in their products in response to skin cancer concerns or increased listed sun protection factor (SPF) values, while health experts have suggested more frequent use of these sunscreens, potentially increasing the likelihood the chemicals are absorbed.

Legislation has since been enacted to improve the FDA review process, and the EWG supports an FDA proposal to limit SPF ratings, as research has not shown that higher SPF ratings provide additional protection from all ultraviolet rays. If anything, the EWG says, SPF values greater than 50+ provide a false sense of security leading to increased exposure.

The EWG’s 2019 sunscreen guide did provide some good news: more than 260 sunscreens meet its safety guidelines and would also meet the FDA’s proposed standards. The full list of those products is on the EWG website.

3 comments on “Hundreds of Sunscreens Don’t Work or Have Unsafe Ingredients, Annual Review Finds

  1. Thanks! “The good news is that the FDA has reaffirmed what EWG has advocated for 13 years: Based on the best current science, the safest and most effective sunscreen active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,”

    I offer the reminder that physical measures are effective though not totally so, as sun can get through fabric. Remember hats, umbrellas (including hand umbrellas), long sleeves and pants (though you might get heat exhaustion; loose white cotton may be ok). Sitting or walking under shade trees (the best). Hand umbrellas are mobile trees, though some sun may get through. Right after sunset, though, there may be mosquitos. Plus if you you go into the sun starting a little bit at a time, early in the season, then you can gradually build a little bit of tan which helps to protect from sunburn. There seems to be no ideal solution.

    I recall reading (in Readers Digest) that some of the ingredients were dangerous and/or ineffective ca 1980. I think that they had decided that PABA was dangerous then, even though GIs had used it in the South Pacific. I recall reading something that sounded like some sunscreens screened out burning rays but not all damaging rays – a bit like cheap sunglasses. That it fooled you into thinking the sun was safe. I believe this was all in that article. Since that was almost 40 years ago I don’t recall the details. Nor the source, apart from Readers Digest.

    You can get zinc oxide paste at the pharmacy for the tip of your nose, or used to be able. However, I don’t think it can be safe to cover your body in it undiluted or not frequently. I guess that’s the reason to buy pre-made sunscreens. It is used for baby rash, isn’t it? That may be diluted, however, in petroleum jelly. I would think that makeup would offer some physical protection, even without built-in sunscreen, for those who use it. In the 1950s they told the Avon ladies that makeup helped protect the skin from air pollution. I think that makeup sometimes has titanium oxide as it is basically white paint. I think that olive oil is supposed to have some protective qualities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the tips, Zinc oxide is also used as a protective coating for mild skin irritations and abrasions. It can promote the healing of wounds, chapped skin and diaper rash. Zinc oxide works as a mild astringent and has some antiseptic priorities.
      Blue lizard SPF 50 is recommended by our dermatologist and works great for fair skin blue-eyed blondes like me that can get sunburned in15 minutes and no allergic reaction with skin rash. 🏖️🌞
      Olive oil is great for darker complexion, my Italian girlfriends would use that at the pool and beach it keeps the skin from drying out, but it doesn’t do a thing for me… Ouch

      Liked by 1 person

      • PS…olive oil may not protect against skin damage caused by the sun, but it does go to work repairing damaged skin and protecting the skin against skin cancer… Antioxidants such as vitamin E and polyphenols are abundant in olive oil and known to clean up or neutralize those free radicals.


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