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

Health + Wellness
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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.

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