Only 25% of sunscreen products offer strong and broad UV protection and raise few health concerns, according to Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The safety and efficacy of over 1,400 sunscreens, lotions, lip products, and makeups that advertise sun protection on the market in 2013 were evaluated in EWG’s 7th annual Sunscreen Guide released today, May 20th.

“The vast majority of sunscreens available to the consumer aren’t as good as most people think they are, but there are a handful of products that rise above the rest,” said Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG and lead author of the report.

Lunder added:

“The best advice for concerned consumers is to use sun-protective clothing, stay in the shade to reduce intense sun exposure and schedule regular skin examinations by a doctor. And turn to EWG’s guide to find the best sunscreens for skin that isn’t protected by clothing.”

Although there is an increasing awareness of the risks associated with sun exposure over the past 35 years, rates of the most fatal skin cancermelanoma, have tripled, Lunder explained, with a yearly increase of 1.9% every year since 2000.

The years of deceptive marketing claims by sunscreen manufacturers may be partly to blame for the rise in cancer rates.

EWG believes that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) should urge companies to take high-SPF sunscreens (above 50+) off the market, which make up 1 in 7 products being sold.

People often misuse sunscreens and stay in the sun longer than they should because of deceptive marketing claims, the researchers said, which puts them at greater risk.

Furthermore, until a short time ago, sunscreens offered little protection against ultraviolet A rays from the sun.

The experts said:

“Sunburns are caused mostly by relatively short but intense ultraviolet B rays. Longer UVA rays, which penetrate the body more deeply, inflict more insidious damage and may contribute to or cause cancer. The FDA’s current definition of “broad-spectrum” still results in inadequate UVA protection.”

In 2011, the FDA issued sunscreen labeling standards that forbid companies from making misleading advertising claims, including:

  • “sunblock”
  • “sweat-proof”
  • “waterproof”

Standards for sunscreens that claim to provide broad-spectrum protection were also set for the first time. However, the FDA now allows the majority of sunscreens being sold in the U.S. to make skeptical claims that they help reduce skin cancer risk and skin aging associated with the sun.

Final regulations have yet to issued on extremely high SPF claims, potentially harmful chemical ingredients, and sunscreen sprays that could be harmful if a person inhales it.

After examining 750 beach and sport sunscreens, the EWG discovered that the new FDA regulations have not led to significantly better sunscreens than those sold beforehand.

Although almost every sunscreen sold in the U.S. meets the new FDA rule for broad-spectrum protection, according to the authors, that standard is so weak that 50% of those sunscreens would not even be on the market in Europe, where safety and efficacy protocols are stricter.

“European sunscreen makers voluntarily comply with European Union recommendations that a product’s UVA protection and SPF be coordinated so that the UVA protection is at least one-third as strong as the SPF,” the researchers pointed out.

The EWG’s guide is meant to help people buy products that get high ratings for offering broad-spectrum protection that is long-lasting and made with ingredients that raise fewer health concerns.

  • No sprays – they may not completely cover a person’s skin and could put them at serious inhalation risks. Approximately 1 in 4 sunscreens in EWG’s database is a spray.
  • No super-high SPFs (above 50+) – they offer little extra skin protection and may lead to misperception and misuse. About 1 in 7 sunscreens has an SPF value higher than 50+.
  • No vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) – although vitamin A is recommended for its anti-aging impact, retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A added to nearly 1 in 4 SPF-rated sunscreens, makeups and moisturizers) can speed development of tumors and lesions on skin exposed to the sun, according to a government report.
  • No oxybenzone – it penetrates the skin, gets into a person’s bloodstream and acts similar to estrogen. Allergic reactions may be triggered. Although results are preliminary, research has found associations between oxybenzone and health risks. About 50% of all beach and sport sunscreens in EWG’s guide consist of oxybenzone.
  • Written by Sarah Glynn