Summer is here. And we are so ready!
Although a lot has changed since last June, one thing hasn’t: exposing our unprotected skin to the welcomed warming sunlight can increase our risk of developing skin cancer. Sun-safe behaviors – wearing protective hats, clothing, and sunglasses; avoiding the sun’s harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays during peak hours; and choosing a safe and effective sunscreen – lower that risk.
There’s just one problem, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Due to inadequate FDA regulations, and the lack of safety testing needed to approve new, more effective, and safer ingredients for sunscreen formulations, store shelves will be stocked with products that either offer inadequate protection, use potentially hazardous ingredients— or both. So, they’ve stepped in to offer their guidance when choosing a sunscreen for your family’s summer fun. But first…
A quick refresher: chemical vs mineral sunscreen
There are two types of sunscreens—chemical and mineral (also referred to as physical). Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and converting them to heat, which is then released by the skin. Mineral/physical sunscreens, formulated with the minerals zinc oxide or titanium oxide (or sometimes both) as the active ingredient for UV protection, sit on top of the skin and block the sun’s damaging UV rays at the surface, deflecting and scattering them away.
Concern about chemicals
There's been a lot of concern — by the EWG and others—about the ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, especially oxybenzone, a potential endocrine disruptor. In May 2019 the FDA proposed new regulations for chemical sunscreens, including that oxybenzone should no longer be classified as safe and effective based on the current data.
Four studies subsequently published in 2020 support previous findings that oxybenzone may not only be an endocrine disruptor but also increase the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis. No bueno.
Another red flag: misleading SPF labels
Many of us choose a sunscreen based on its sun protection factor, or SPF, assuming that the higher the number the more protection it offers. But according to EWG, that is not the case. They point out that SPF is an unreliable measurement because that number only reflects how well a product will protect you from UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers.
For a sunscreen to be effective, it needs to provide equal broad-spectrum protection— against both UVB and other harmful rays like UVA. Those are the ones that penetrate the skin more deeply and are associated with skin aging and cancer.
According to those same 2019 FDA regulations, higher SPF values have not been shown to provide additional clinical benefit and may provide users with a false sense of security. To straighten out this misconception, the agency proposes limiting products’ SPF claims to 60+. (More than one in ten of the sunscreens EWG reviewed are labeled with an SPF greater than 50+. The EWG recommends that consumers avoid products labeled with an SPF higher than 50.)
And the winners of the 2021 Safe Sunscreen List are…
In its analysis of more than 1,500 sunscreens, the 15th annual EWG guide rates products based on 5 factors: health hazards, based on a comprehensive review of available data; UVB protection; UVA protection; balance of UVA/UVB protection; and sunscreen stability, or how quickly an ingredient breaks down in the sun, based on published findings and peer-reviewed studies.
Each year the list gets a little longer, which is good news for us. This year there are 200+ recreational sunscreens that got the EWG thumbs up, so clearly more brands are starting to pay attention to health and safety concerns. There are also lots more better-absorbing brands to choose from, as opposed to years past, when safe mineral sunscreens left your skin with a ghostly white cast.
They also provide a sunscreen glossary to help you decode the (often misleading) labels.
If you're concerned about ingredients or have allergies or sensitive skin,
mineral sunscreens are the way to go. Another reason dermatologists prefer them: they’re effective against sun's rays the moment you apply them (while most chemical sunscreens take about 20 to 30 minutes to activate) and tend to need less reapplication.