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May 5, 2022 — Just in time for Memorial Day outings, a new report on sunscreens is out.
The news isn’t all sunny. About 75% of more than 1,850 sunscreen products evaluated offer inferior sun protection or have worrisome ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that just issued its 16th annual Guide to Sunscreens.
In response, dermatologists, including the president of the American Academy of Dermatology, say that although some concerns have been raised about the safety of some sunscreen ingredients, sunscreens themselves remain an important tool in the fight against skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans will get skin cancer by age 70. Melanoma, the most deadly, has a 5-year survival rate of 99% if caught early.
Overall, the Environmental Working Group found, about 1 in 4 sunscreens, or about 500 products, met their standards for providing adequate sun protection and avoiding ingredients linked to known health harms. Products meant for babies and children did slightly better, with about 1 in 3 meeting the standards. The group evaluated mineral sunscreens, also called physical sunscreens, and non-mineral sunscreens, also called chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and sit on the skin to deflect the sun’s rays. Chemical sunscreens, with ingredients such as oxybenzone or avobenzone, are partially absorbed into the skin.
Among the group’s concerns:
- The use of oxybenzone in the non-mineral sunscreens. About 30% of the non-mineral sunscreens have it, says Carla Burns, senior director for cosmetic science for the Environmental Working Group. Oxybenzone is a potential hormone disrupter and a skin sensitizer that may harm children and adults, she says. Some progress has been made, as the group found oxybenzone in 66% of the non-mineral sunscreens it reviewed in 2019. (The FDA is seeking more information on oxybenzone and many other sunscreen ingredients.)
- Contamination of sunscreens with benzene, which has been linked to leukemia and other blood disorders, according to the National Cancer Institute. But industry experts stress that that chemical is found in trace amounts in personal care products and do not pose a safety concern. “Benzene is a chemical that is ubiquitous in the environment and not an intentionally added ingredient in personal care products. People worldwide are exposed daily to benzene from indoor and outdoor sources, including air, drinking water, and food and beverages,” the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group, said in a statement.
- Protection from ultraviolet A (UVA) rays is often inadequate, according to research published last year by the Environmental Working Group.
Products on the ‘Best’ List
The Environmental Working Group found that 282 recreational sunscreens met its criteria. Among them:
- Coral Safe Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Mad Hippie Facial Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
The group chose 86 non-mineral sunscreens as better options, including:
- Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Lotion, Aloe Vera, SPF 30
- Banana Boat Sport Ultra Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
- Black Girl Sunscreen Melanin Boosting Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
And 70 sunscreens made the kids’ best list, including:
- True Baby Everyday Play Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
- Sun Biologic Kids’ Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30+
- Kiss My Face Organic Kids’ Defense Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Industry Response, FDA Actions
In a statement, Alexandra Kowcz, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council, pointed out that “as part of a daily safe-sun regimen, sunscreen products help prevent sunburn and reduce skin cancer risk. It is unfortunate that as Americans spend more time outdoors, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2022 Guide to Sunscreens resorts to fear-mongering with misleading information that could keep consumers from using sunscreens altogether.”
The FDA has asked for more information about certain ingredients to further evaluate products, she says, and industry is working with the agency. The FDA says it is attempting to improve the quality, safety and effectiveness of over-the-counter sunscreen products. In September, 2021, the FDA issued a proposal for regulating OTC sunscreen products, as required under the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act. The effective date for the final order can’t be earlier than September 2022, the CARES Act says.
Dermatologists Weigh In
“Every time something like this gets published, my patients come in hysterical,” says Michele Green, MD, a New York City dermatologist who reviewed the report for WebMD. She acknowledges that more research is needed on some sunscreen ingredients. “We really do not know the long-term consequence of oxybenzone,” she says.
Her advice: If her patients have melasma (a skin condition with brown patches on the face), she advises them to use both a chemical and a mineral sunscreen. “I don’t tell my patients in general not to use the chemical [sunscreens].”
For children, she says, the mineral sunscreens may be preferred. On her own children, who are teens, she uses the mineral sunscreens, due to possible concern about hormone disruption.
In a statement, Mark D. Kaufmann, MD, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, says that “Sunscreen is an important part of a comprehensive sun protection strategy.”
Besides a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for exposed skin, the academy recommends seeking shade and wearing sun-protective clothing to reduce skin cancer risk.