Few things evoke the carefree feelings of summer and beach vacations like the smell of sunscreen. For most of us, it feels like not so long ago when using it was as simple as picking up our favorite coconut-scented bottle, lathering up, and heading off to the pool or beach. But now it seems the whole concept of sunscreen use has gotten way more complicated.
Earlier this summer, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its 11th annual Sunscreen Guide, containing the results of its investigation into more than 880 sunscreens, 480 moisturizers, and 120 lip products with SPF. The guide itself is quite extensive, but one shocking claim stands out right up front: “Almost three-fourths of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients.”
The report was met with varying responses from members of the scientific and medical communities, and attempting to read through all of those separately can be a pretty confusing task. So what does it all mean for us as sun-loving consumers? Here’s what you should know.
Carefully consider the ingredients.
In its report, the EWG mainly targets three ingredients it considers harmful: oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, and methylisothiazolinone. Oxybenzone is one of a small number of active ingredients approved by the FDA to block both UVB and UVA rays – meaning it can be categorized as a “broad-spectrum” ingredient – and it’s in almost 65% of the sunscreens the EWG evaluated. But the EWG claims it can cause allergic reactions on your skin and that it’s a hormone disruptor – meaning it can potentially disrupt the normal function of the hormone system. “In the lab, it has hormone-like activities,” Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst and the lead scientist on EWG’s 2017 Guide to Sunscreens, tells Teen Vogue. But she also pointed out that they’re not yet “sure exactly how to relate that to human health risks,” and the EWG report noted more research needs to be done. Even so, based on studies that have been done, Lunder says the EWG “redirects” people away from oxybenzone and toward sunscreens without it.
Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, appears as an inactive ingredient in many sunscreens. In fact, “it’s used in a lot of skin- and hair-care products,” Kristin M. Omberg, a chemist and fellow of the American Chemical Society, tells Teen Vogue. “Vitamin A helps skin produce new, healthy cells but can cause dryness and sun sensitivity. It’s what’s in Retin-A, which is available from dermatologists by prescription. Adding the palmitate component, which is oily, makes it gentler on skin.”
But the EWG isn’t a big fan of the ingredient. Lunder points to a government study of hairless mice, which found the subjects were more susceptible to skin tumors and lesions after being exposed to cream with retinyl palmitate and UV rays, than the mice not exposed to the retinyl palmitate cream. She (and the EWG report) also points to studies that claim Vitamin A can be toxic in excessive levels and says that its use in sunscreen is simply unnecessary.
Then again, “given its widespread use, if [retinyl palmitate] caused cancer in humans, we’d expect to see more evidence by now,” Omberg says. “That said, I don’t believe it adds any substantial benefit to sunscreens. It’s added as an ‘anti-aging’ ingredient because that’s good for marketing. However, it is known to stimulate cell turnover [exfoliation] and that makes skin more susceptible to sunburn.”
And then there’s methylisothiazolinone, a preservative found in about 100 of the sunscreens EWG evaluated this year, which Lunder says is a “potent allergen.” The main concern with this one, she says, is that even if you don’t experience an allergic reaction the first time you’re exposed, it’s a “sensitizer,” which means you could develop an allergy to it over time.
But while EWG does pull in results from various studies to inform its report, it’s worth noting that neither the American Academy of Dermatology nor the Skin Cancer Foundation take issue with oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. “With respect to the worrisome ingredients…the claims have repeatedly been debunked by scientific evaluation of the data and critical review of the scientific publications upon which they claim to base their conclusions,” David J. Leffell, M.D., a dermatologist at Yale School of Medicine, tells Teen Vogue. “All of the ingredients not only are FDA-approved but have been used for decades without any evidence that they have effects on the hormonal status of individuals or result in an increase in skin cancer. Just the opposite: The sunscreen ingredients that have been proven to decrease the negative effect of sun on the cells of the skin no doubt decrease the risk of skin cancer.”
Coppertone, one of the most recognizable sunscreen brands, uses oxybenzone in many of its formulas and fully stands by that decision. “We are unfamiliar with how EWG assesses products but are confident in our own science-based, comprehensive testing program, which goes above and beyond what is required by the [FDA], is subject to and passes independent scrutiny, and meets numerous global standards,” Eduardo Ruvolo, the director of medical affairs at Bayer (Coppertone’s parent company), tells Teen Vogue. “The EWG’s Sunscreen Guide is not a scientific document, nor has it undergone peer review or been reviewed for accuracy by recognized sunscreen experts.” (In response, Lunder says that EWG cites peer-reviewed studies from scientific literature in their reports.)
Still not sure if you should steer clear? Omberg suggests weighing the potential side effects of those ingredients (which the scientific and medical communities overwhelmingly agree are minimal) with the effects of too much sun exposure. “There’s a relative assessment of risk involved in choosing a sunscreen,” she says. “Am I more concerned about low levels of chemical exposure or high levels of sun exposure? As a scientist, I go with the data – I’m more concerned with sun exposure, which has been clearly demonstrated to cause skin cancer, rather than low levels of exposure to chemicals that are generally regarded as safe for use on skin.”
But you don’t have to make that call. Though the scientific community and EWG don’t exactly agree on whether or not certain chemical ingredients are harmful, there is a pretty solid consensus that mineral ingredients – namely zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – are a worthy alternative for people who want something different. “There are no meaningful risks that have been scientifically validated,” Dr. Leffell reiterates. “However, it is often difficult for the consumer to understand all of the underlying science and the competing claims. For this reason, consumers can opt for an excellent alternative: sunscreen that contains only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.”
Mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide work differently than chemicals like oxybenzone. “Mineral sunscreen is also called physical sunscreen,” Kate Solomon, the founder and chief product developer of the natural skin-care line Babo Botanicals, tells Teen Vogue. “Physical barriers, like Babo’s Clear Zinc mineral sunscreens, reflect the UV rays, bouncing them away from the skin. They act as reflectors of UVA and UVB. Chemical sunscreens get converted into heat and dissipate.”
As far as the EWG is concerned, mineral sunscreens are the safer option. “They don’t penetrate your skin, so you don’t have the same hormone-disruption concerns like you would with oxybenzone,” Lunder says. Not only that, but these physical ingredients don’t break down in the sun over time as the chemical ones do.
And there are other benefits, too. Because the minerals reflect the UV light, “they can be applied under makeup or over moisturizer because they don’t need to be absorbed in the skin in order to be effective UV blockers,” Anne Chapas, M.D., a dermatologist and the director of Union Square Laser Dermatology, tells Teen Vogue. “Second, they are chemically inert, meaning that they don’t have any biological effects that we are aware of. Third, they are well tolerated and rarely cause allergic reactions.”
As far as sun protection goes, Solomon – as well as Dr. Leffell and Omberg – notes that these minerals are just as effective as the chemicals. And if you can’t get past that image of old-school lifeguards in the 1980s with their noses covered in white zinc, fear not: Many of today’s formulations are made with nano particles that make the sunscreen more sheer than before.
Don’t go overboard with the SPF.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using an SPF of at least 30, but most experts agree to not go over 50. It’s not that a higher SPF doesn’t provide any more protection, but once you get above 50, that increase is negligible. Case in point: SPF 50 blocks about 97% of UVB rays, while SPF 100 blocks about 99%.
But most sunscreen users don’t think about that; rather, they see a number that’s twice as high and assume they’ll get twice as much protection or that the protection will last twice as long, which cultivates a false sense of security that could lead to a bad burn. “SPF values above 50 are really misleading,” Lunder says. “They offer a very small increase in sunburn [UVB] protection, and they don’t offer better UVA protection.” She says that the FDA is considering a rule to cap SPF values at 50, but nothing has been finalized.
And then there’s the fact that, although the increase in SPF doesn’t add much protection, it could increase your chances of negative side effects from the ingredients. “We do not recommend SPF of 50 or higher, as the minimal added protection does not outweigh the exponentially more active ingredients required to do so,” Chris Birchby, the founder of the sun-care line Coola, tells Teen Vogue. “More active ingredients increase the chances of skin irritation.”
Always use broad-spectrum.
It’s also important to look past the SPF and make sure the label on your sunscreen says “broad-spectrum.” “The SPF rating standardizes how effective sunscreens are with protecting against ultraviolet B [UVB] rays from the sun,” Dr. Leffell says. “Remember that SPF relates only to [UVB] rays, not to the ultraviolet A [UVA] rays (which are more likely to cause wrinkles and skin aging than skin cancer per se, though it certainly does contribute to the development of melanoma and other skin cancers). For this reason, [you should always] purchase a sunscreen product that says ‘broad-spectrum.’ This means that it is rated to protect against both [UVA] and [UVB] rays.”
Opt for lotions instead of sprays.
Spray sunscreens are nice in theory: They’re easy to apply, they’re not greasy, and they’re lightweight. But concerns about them abound – from the EWG, the FDA, and many other experts. One issue is the way they’re applied: “Because they’re transparent, because they’re a very light type of formulation, it’s really hard to tell if you missed a spot,” Lunder says. And, she notes, people tend to not apply enough and fail to rub in the solution after spraying, so far less of the solution is actually getting onto the skin.
And then there’s the inhalation risk of the chemicals. “As anyone who uses them a lot knows, it’s easy to accidentally inhale them – and pretty much impossible to inhale a lotion,” Omberg says. “The skin is designed to be a protective barrier; the lungs are not. So the same chemicals, by a different exposure route, may produce different effects.” She notes that the FDA is currently looking into this issue. That said, Omberg says, if you’re in a pinch and spray sunscreen is all you have, it’s better to use it and get some sun protection than to not put anything on.
But you can take steps to do so effectively and safely. “When using spray sunscreen, make sure to spray an adequate amount and rub it in to ensure even coverage,” Dr. Chapas says. “Apply indoors and not in the wind. To avoid inhaling spray sunscreen, never spray it around or near the face or mouth. Spraying the sunscreen into your hands and then applying it can help you avoid inhalation while also ensuring adequate coverage.”
Be wary of claims on the label.
The level of SPF and the presence (or lack thereof) “broad-spectrum” are the most important things to look for on your sunscreen labels. In fact, you probably shouldn’t pay too much attention to other claims. “A lot of other claims – like ‘sensitive,’ ‘safe for babies,’ or ‘dermatologist tested’ – just don’t mean much,” Lunder says. She says they’re mostly “generic marketing terms, which just don’t have a lot of weight.”
In terms of how the sunscreen performs in water, Lunder notes that brands can no longer claim to be “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” but they can still say “water-resistant,” a claim they have to prove through testing. Even so, Dr. Leffell stresses, it’s important to reapply after you get out of the water. “There is no question that applying sunscreen is a lot more complicated than brushing your teeth in the morning and evening, but people need to see it in that context,” he says. “Going to the dentist is a lot less pleasant than brushing your teeth and flossing. Going to the dermatologist and having biopsies and other treatments for sun damage is a lot less convenient than applying sunscreen on a regular basis. So get in the habit.”
Reapply often, and take breaks from the sun.
And that’s important advice to heed even if you’re not in and out of the water. Avoid falling for the false sense of security from a “water-resistant” claim or a high SPF and reapply your sunscreen every two hours to ensure you don’t have a lapse in sun protection.
And as nice as it is to spend a day relaxing or splashing around in the sun at the pool or the beach, be sure to take regular breaks inside or in the shade, and cover up when you can. “It’s important to remember that sunscreen is just a part of a comprehensive UV protection program and shouldn’t be relied on alone,” Dr. Chapas says. “I also advise patients to wear hats and UV-protective clothing and bathing suits, avoid peak sun exposure times, [and] carry parasols.”
Not sure if you’re doing enough? “If, at the end of the day, your skin is pink or red or you have a deep tan – you need to reassess how you are protecting yourself from the sun,” Dr. Leffell says. “Enjoying the outdoors in an active fashion is critical for physical and mental health – just be sun-smart about it.”
Choose a product you like.
One thing all the experts can agree on? Wearing sunscreen is crucial. And you’re not going to do that unless you buy one you actually like. “Through our research, we’ve learned that one of the biggest barriers to using everyday sun protection is that people dislike how the products feel on their skin,” Ruvolo says. For Coppertone, that means offering a variety of chemical and mineral sunscreens for customers to choose from.
That sentiment is echoed by both Birchby and Solomon. “The best SPF is one that is used, which is why we offer both classic and mineral formulations,” Birchby says. “Our goal is to provide as many options as possible so that SPF is applied on a regular basis!”
And though Babo Botanicals offers only mineral sunscreen, Solomon recognizes that it’s not for everyone – and the most important thing is always that you’re protecting your skin. “The most important protection from melanoma is sun protection,” she says. “If one protects themselves with chemical sunscreens, then so be it. At least they are protecting themselves. Babo offers alternatives to what may be out there. We offer fragrance-free, mineral-based formulas that are created for super sensitive skin. But staying in the shade and using any protection a family chooses is what we want to promote.”
The bottom line:
While the EWG Sunscreen Guide may be controversial in some ways, Lunder stresses that “it’s really important for people to understand the limits of sunscreen…they create a misunderstanding about how protected you are.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s anti-sunscreen. In fact, she agrees it should be used regularly. “I buy and use sunscreen,” she says. “I think we understand that’s an important part of being out being in the sun…. But I think we’d all be better served by a better, more realistic understanding of how these products work and what the risks are.”
Ultimately, Dr. Leffell says, while sunscreen can’t alone protect you from the effects of the sun, it’s definitely a good start. “In real life, dermatologists certainly note that patients who use sunscreen and practice other forms of sun protection have a decreased number of precancers,” he says. “There is also no question that sunscreen has been shown to decrease the damage caused to the skin reflected in signs of aging – damage to collagen and elastin showing up as wrinkles…. [And] while most cancers can’t be avoided because we don’t fully understand what causes them, skin cancer and melanoma are different. We know exactly what causes the majority of these malignant tumors and, as a result, we know exactly how we can work to reduce the chances of getting one: Practice good sun protection, which includes but is not limited to the regular use of sunscreen.”
Photo Courtesy of Instagram/@bellahadid.
Related: How to Tell if Moles Are Skin Cancer