Summer is the best time to get your daily dose of vitamin D from more than just foods and supplements. People can and should take time to get at least some sun exposure for the precious benefits it offers.
This brings up a rather “seasonal” question, however – which sunscreen products should we go for? Most people have preferred brands and models that they use every year because they’re comfortable with them.
Why the sunscreen market in the U.S. is such a mess?
If you take a deeper look into the U.S. sunscreen market, the FDA regulations on it, and the ingredients in the sunscreens, you’ll notice that something’s terribly wrong. The problem becomes even more obvious when you compare all that with Europe’s tight regulations and effective quality control.
“Europe has stronger standards for their sunscreens,” explains Carla Burns, sunscreen research and database analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The main difference between the U.S. and EU sunscreen regulations seems to be that the latter insist on proportional UVA and UVB protection for a balanced and comprehensive skin protection. In the U.S., on the other hand, these restrictions are so lax that, according to the EWG, ~75% of the sunscreens on the American market would not meet the European standards.
What does this mean for Americans? It means that people in the U.S. get sunscreen that may be less effective.
There are even reports and studies from January 2020 that show that “chemical sunscreen ingredients are systemically absorbed after one application, and some ingredients can stay in the blood for at least 3 weeks.”
Such harmful and easily absorbed ingredients include chemicals such as Homosalate, Avobenzone, Octocrylene, Oxybenzone, Octisalate, and Octinoxate. As you can see from the graph below, all of them tend to surpass the FDA-approved 0.5 nb/mL with Oxybenzone going over 200 ng/mL in American sunscreens on average.
The biggest risks bad sunscreens pose to our bodies and health
Here’s a quick breakdown of the main risks and problems posed by bad sunscreens. Many of these problems are present even in the biggest, most advertised, and well-renowned brands in America. We’ll list them in several separate lists below but for now – here’s what you should be mindful of when using a sunscreen:
- Hormonal overdose
Oxybenzone is one of the more common ingredients in American sunscreens and it has little trouble penetrating the skin and entering our bloodstreams. One of the main problems with it is that once it gets into our system, it acts like estrogen. This can lead to an unhealthy dose of “hormones” in our bodies which, in turn, can cause a lot of health problems.
There are many cases in the U.S. where oxybenzone has been detected in people’s bloodstreams at rates 438+ times higher than what’s healthy with the average being 200+ times over the line.
- Skin cancer
Yes, the thing sunscreens are supposed to protect us from is something many U.S. sunscreens actively cause. Some forms of vitamin A such as Retinyl palmitate, Retinyl acetate, Retinol, and Retinyl Linoleate are often present in American sunscreens. These ingredients are linked to conditions such as osteoporosis, liver damage, hair loss, brittle nails, and hip fractures in older adults, as well as skin tumors and lesions.
- Allergic reactions
More so than with most other chemical products, sunscreens are known to cause allergic skin reactions. That’s because of ingredients such as methylisothiazolinone which “won” the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s “Allergen of the Year” award in 2013.
Oxybenzone is also known to cause itchiness and eczema-like allergic reactions. (Read more…)
We’ll talk more about sunscreen sprays in a minute but for now, we’ll mention that the risk of inhalation is surprisingly common. Inhaling spray sunscreens is reported to cause irreversible lung damage although more research is needed. Plus, sprays often lead to poor skin coverage as people tend to miss spots when applying them.
- A dangerous peace of mind
This is not so much a problem with sunscreens but with our psyche. Like many other modern products, sunscreens tend to give us a false sense of security when it comes to sun exposure. Too often people feel overly secure after applying their sunscreen and stay in the sun for much longer than they should.
This is an extra big problem in America where many sunscreens provide good UVB protection but are lackluster against UVA rays. And since UVA rays are the ones that penetrate the skin more deeply, surpass our immune systems, cause free radicals, and lead to higher melanoma risks, this is a problem.
Because of the lack of balance between UVB and UVA protection in American sunscreens, they’re known to allow ~3x more UVA rays exposure on average than their European counterparts.
What can we do about it?
To their credit, the FDA has made multiple proposals to strengthen the UVA protection of American sunscreens over the past decade. Unfortunately, none have been made law as of 2020. The agency made such proposals in 2019 as well but they have been postponed.
“If adopted as written, that monograph would have ensured that all sunscreens sold in the U.S. would have been safer, providing stronger regulations around ingredient safety, UVA protection, and capping high SPF values,” explains Carla Burns. “Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, the monograph has not yet passed and language was included in the CARES Act, passed early this year, that maintains the status quo of our sunscreen industry and keeps inferior products on store shelves.”
For the consumers, this means that we’re more or less on our own. That’s why it’s vital to spread the word and educate those around us to look for the few healthier options on the market.
Another crucial advice is to NOT rely on sunscreens alone. Even when using an adequate product, people often overestimate the effectiveness of the sunscreen and expose themselves to more sunlight than they should at a time.
Additionally, sunscreens are also known to have a disastrous environmental impact. Even good mineral-based sunscreens contain nanoparticles – minute ingredients that easily cross the blood-brain barrier in both humans and aquatic life.
Instead, experts recommend employing other protective methods in addition to using a good sunscreen such as:
- Limiting the exposure to sunlight in peak hours and focusing more on early mornings and later afternoons.
- Limiting the overall time you spend in the sun at a time and instead alternating between sun and shade.
- Using physical protective gear such as sunglasses, hats, and protective summer clothes.
In essence, the sunscreen should not only be good but it should also be your last resort.
Which sunscreens to avoid?
The biggest takeaway the folks at the Environmental Working Group want us to make is that spray sunscreens should be avoided at all costs and all other sunscreens should be chosen carefully.
The main reason for this complete rejection of spray sunscreens is not only in their application method but in their ingredients. After going over 1,300 SPF products in 2020, EWG found that spray sunscreens were almost entirely made with ill-advised ingredients.
During their testing, they developed a grading scale going from 0 to 10 which measured the harmful ingredients of each sunscreen. Any sunscreen with a rating of 2+ was deemed inadvisable with only ~25% of U.S. sunscreens getting a rating in the 0-2 range.
Here’s a list of the worst offenders that got a scoring of 10/10 for major health concerns:
- Walgreens Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Sun Bum Moisturizing Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
- Panama Jack Sunscreen Continuous Spray, SPF 100
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 85+
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100+
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+
- Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60+
- Neutrogena Age Shield Face Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 110
- Equate Sport Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Equate Beauty Ultra Light Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- CVS Health Ultra Sheer Lotion, SPF 100
- CVS Health Sensitive Skin Sun Lotion, SPF 60+
- CVS Health Ultra Protection Sun Lotion, SPF 100
- Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- COOLA Classic Body Sunscreen Spray, Peach Blossom, SPF 70
- Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
- Banana Boat Ultra Defense Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Banana Boat Kids MAX Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
- Australian Gold Botanical Natural Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
Which sunscreens to get?
Of course, with thousands of products on the market, there are still some sunscreens the EWG recommends for both their safety and effectiveness.
“Based on the best current science and toxicology data, we continue to recommend sunscreens with the mineral active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, because they are the only two ingredients the FDA recognized as safe or effective in their proposed draft rules,” Burns says.
Here are some products you can use safely:
Beach and sport sunscreens
- 365 Everyday Value Mineral Sunscreen Sport Lotion, SPF 30
- All Good Sunstick, Unscented, SPF 30
- Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Badger Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 30
- Badger Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30 & 35
- Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
- Block Island Organics Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Butterbean Organics Simple Healthy Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30+
- Just Skin Food Baby Beach Bum Sunscreen Stick, SPF 31
- Kabana Organic Skincare Green Screen Sunscreen Lotion, Original, SPF 32
- Loving Naturals Clear Body Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Star Naturals Baby Natural Sunscreen Stick, SPF 25
- Summer Lotion Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- SunBioLogic Men’s Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Sport, SPF 30
- thinksport Body & Face Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- thinksport Kids Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+
- thinkbaby Body & Face Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- Waxhead Sun Defense Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
Here are some sunscreens that made the borderline score of 2/10 and are still considered “recommended”:
- Banana Boat Kids Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
- Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50
- Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Clear Body Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Clear Face Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
The EWG also made a separate list for safe non-mineral sunscreens for those of us who can’t get on board with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide-based products. The non-mineral sunscreens didn’t rate as well as their mineral counterparts on EWG’s list but here are some of the safer options:
- Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Lotion, Aloe Vera, SPF 30
- Australian Gold Little Joey Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
- Banana Boat Kids Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
- Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- CVS Health 30 Ultra Sheer Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Daylogic Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport High Endurance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- JASON Facial Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 20
- Kiss My Face Sport Hot Spots Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Clear Face/Body Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- No-Ad Suncare General Protection Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15
- Panama Jack Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Wegmans Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
The EWG had a separate moisturizer list as well since there were quite a few products there that also deserved recommendations:
- Algenist Alive Prebiotic Balancing Moisturizer, SPF 15
- Andalou Naturals Men Face Guard Daily Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Ao Skincare 6000X Elemental Screen, SPF 30
- ATTITUDE Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
- Biossance Squalane + Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Block Island Organics Natural Face Moisturizer, SPF 30
- Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer, All Skin Types, SPF 15
- DeVita Skin Care Solar Protect Lotion, SPF 30
- Juice Beauty Oil-Free Moisturizer, SPF 30
- Kari Gran Essential SPF Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 28
- Keys KPRO Tinted Moisturizer with Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Loving Naturals Daily UV Cream, Unscented, SPF 20
- MDSolarSciences Mineral Creme, SPF 30
- Raw Elements Daily Lifestyle Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Solara Suncare Clean Freak Nutrient Boosted Daily Sunscreen, Unscented, SPF 30
- Suntegrity 5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Tinted Face Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Sunumbra Daily Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15+
- Supergoop! Daily Correct CC Cream Lotion, SPF 35
- thinksport Everyday Face Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Naturally Tinted, SPF 30+
- White & Elm Everyday, SPF 15
The state of the sunscreen industry and market in the U.S. is not enviable. In light of that, it’s not surprising that the rate of new melanoma cases in the U.S. has tripled since the 1970s.
Still, the silver lining is that there are enough products worth using and recommending. That, together with the changes to sunscreen regulations the FDA keeps pushing for, may eventually change the state of the market.
Plus, as EWG experts recommend, there are plenty of other tools and solutions people can use together with or instead of sunscreen.
“Sunscreen is only one form of sun protection and should not be relied on alone. It’s also important to wear sunglasses, hats and t-shirts, stay in the shade, and avoid the midday sun.” experts say.