Dr. Axe > Beauty > Skin Care
Best Sunscreens & Toxic Ones to Avoidc By Leah Zerbe, MS, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES
May 5, 2022
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Environmental Working Group’s 16th annual Guide to Sunscreens is a mix of good and bad news when it comes to the state of sunscreens sold in American and beyond. For instance, oxybenzone — a suspected hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed into the body — is now present in 30 percent of the 1,850 products EWG investigated. While that may seem high, consider this: three years ago, about 60 percent of sunscreens contained this concerning chemical.
The National Toxicology Program released findings linking oxybenzone exposure to a higher risk of thyroid tumors in female rats. Even the European Commission, which reviews ingredient safety in Europe, published a final opinion finding oxybenzone unsafe for use at current levels.
“We slather these ingredients on our skin, but many of these chemicals haven’t been adequately tested,” says Carla Burns, EWG senior director for cosmetic science. “Despite the known toxicity concerns, oxybenzone is still widely used as a non-mineral active ingredient in sunscreens. The long-term use of these chemicals, and especially chemicals not adequately tested for safety, could be problematic.”
Sunscreen Chemicals Build Up in Your BloodThe effects of sunscreen may linger longer than expected, too. An FDA-led 2020 study found that “chemical sunscreen ingredients are systemically absorbed after one application, and some ingredients can stay in the blood for at least three weeks.”
The sunscreen chemicals tested in this FDA study included avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate, and all six active ingredients tested readily absorbed into the bloodstream of humans involved the study — and at concentrations that surpass an important FDA safety threshold.
This builds on previous research showing that sunscreen chemicals hit the bloodstream within a day of using them — and at levels high enough to prompt a government investigation on safety.
Some public safety experts say this is just one example of the backward nature of product regulation in the U.S.
Beyond safety issues is another question: Does sunscreen even work? Environmental Working Group’s found that nearly 75 percent of sunscreens don’t work and/or contain concerning ingredients that are readily absorbed by the body.
Things may be slowing moving in the right direction, but for now, the onus is still on the consumer to find sunscreen that’s safer and actually works.
Related: What Are Parabens? The Truth About This Common Cosmetic Ingredient
Are You Using the Best Sunscreens?A past EWG report cited research of Brian Diffey, PhD, emeritus professor of photobiology at the Institute of Cellular Medicine at Newcastle University. He’s shown that, on average, U.S. sunscreens allow about three times more UVA rays to transfer through skin compared to European sunscreens. In fact, Americans sunscreen choices are fewer and often offer worse UVA protection compared to those available in the European Union.
This matters because UVA rays are more abundant than UVB rays, and UVA damage is more subtle than the sunburns induced mainly by UVB rays. UVA rays can damage your skin invisibly by suppressing the immune system and aging the skin over time; overexposure of these rays are also linked to the development of melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, too.
According to EWG, most sunscreens sold in the U.S. would not be sold in Europe, which sets much more stringent UVA standards.
In the U.S., sunscreen regulations haven’t been updated since 2011, and current regulations promote SPF products that reduce sunburn (which is important), instead of sunscreens that offer better broad-spectrum protection. In a news release, EWG noted that FDA rules ignore the relationship between the labeled SPF and measured UVA protection.
Excess UVA radiation is tied to aging, immune system damage and a higher risk of certain cancers.
Most of the products we tested reduced UV radiation by only half of what we expect from looking at the SPF on the label,” explains David Andrews, PhD, a senior scientist at EWG and lead author of the report. These would not be legal for sale in Europe.
Sunscreen Is Only One Tool in the Sun Safety ToolboxNow, it’s important to note that there is no perfect sunscreen. Many contain harmful chemicals, and even mineral-based ones could contain nanoparticles, minute ingredients that can cross the blood-brain barrier and also harm aquatic life. Beyond that, sunscreen is unique compared to many other personal care products because you coat it thickly onto your skin, often multiple times a day. You don’t get that type of hours-long, skin-absorbing exposure with something like, say, shampoo you quickly wash off.
That’s why it’s very important to look for safer sunscreens if you use them and to recognize that you can’t only rely on sunscreens alone to prevent sun overexposure.
No product is going to be fully protective and no product will last on your skin for more than two hours max, EWG has noted in the past. They recommend thickly applying sunscreen coatings, reapplying every time you’re out of the water and choosing a better product to begin with are all key. But other sun smart methods to avoid overexposures are a must. In fact, sunscreen should actually be your last line of defense against the sun after adopting other more effective measures. More on those later.
In the EWG’s 2022 best sunscreens report, the group analyzed the ingredients and labeling claims of more than 1,800 products with SPF. “The sunscreen industry continues to bury its head in the sand,” says Scott Faber, EWG’s senior Vice President for government affairs. “The market is flooded with products that provide poor UVA protection and use concerning ingredients. Sunscreen sales have increased dramatically, so sunscreen companies can certainly afford to conduct the studies needed to ensure their customers are safe.”
So what are the best sunscreens out there? Let’s take a look.
The Best Sunscreens of 2022: For Recreation “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 of the most highly rated sunscreens that met EWG’s criteria for safety and effectiveness:
The Best Sunscreens of 2022: Daily-Use/MoisturizersFor its 2022 sunscreen report, EWG rated these products to be among the best:
Top Picks for the Best Baby Sunscreens (and Overall Kid-Friendly Picks)
And last year, spray sunscreens contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, prompted a sunscreen recall of 14 popular products. Independent tested found that the problem is even widespread.
When it comes to sunscreens, here are some of the other worst overall offenders scoring in the Red Zone (10) for major safety concerns. Overall, these products tested poorly in the EWG analysis and are considered bad choices for sun protection. Just remember, this list is not exhaustive. To check your favorite sunscreen or to peruse the database, click here.)
Key Findings in EWG’s Sunscreen Report
How to Avoid Too Much SunGetting some sun exposure is vital for good health because it helps your body create vitamin D. There are multiple ways to get vitamin D, but your best bet is to get it from standing in the sun or eating vitamin D-rich foods. In fact, sitting in the sun unexposed for about 10 minutes helps your body create roughly 10,000 units of natural vitamin D.
Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, heart disease depression, osteoporosis and many other ailments, so it’s important to get enough. Like almost anything, though, you can get too much of a good thing and want to make sure you avoid sunburns.
You should consider sunscreen your last resort to prevent sunburns, though. In fact, there’s no clear evidence that using sunscreens actually prevents skin cancer — including in the best sunscreens — and some ingredients may actually fuel skin cancer.
Avoiding overexposure during peak sunlight hours, use sunglasses, and sun-protective hats and clothing (Solumbra is a good brand). These things reduce your risk of burns without sunscreen.