Sunscreens: Best & Worst
The Best Sunscreens, Toxic Ones to Avoid & the State of Sunscreen in America
May 21, 2020
It’s no secret that the sun (in moderate doses) provides all sorts of health benefits, including helping our bodies manufacture vital vitamin D. With warmer weather right around the corner, though, many people are looking for the best sunscreens to cut their risk of sun overexposure, sunburns and possibly skin cancer.
There’s just one problem. In America, most sunscreens on the market simply don’t offer an adequate shield from the sun. In fact, many sneaky label claims may leave customers thinking they’re more protected than they really are.
It all comes down to the fact that America’s sunscreen regulations are weak and inadequate. In comparison, Europe has a more robust list of approved sunscreen ingredients, including ones that more effectively protect against UVA rays, the type more prone to cause melanoma compared to UVB rays.
“Europe has stronger standards for their sunscreens,” explains Carla Burns, sunscreen research and database analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Here’s the major difference. Products sold in Europe need to offer proportional UVA and UVB protection for a more balanced and comprehensive protection from excess sun, Burns explains.
But this UVA/UVB ratio isn’t required in the U.S. “The current FDA standards for UVA protection are so weak, that our analysis of the sunscreens in this year’s guide showed that 75 percent of the products we reviewed would not meet the European standards for UVA protection.”
Adding to concerns about sunscreen safety are the recent results of an FDA-led January 2020 study finding that “chemical sunscreen ingredients are systemically absorbed after one application, and some ingredients can stay in the blood for at least 3 weeks.”
The sunscreen chemicals tested include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate, and all six active ingredients tested readily absorbed into the bloodstream of humans in the study — and at concentrations that surpass an important FDA safety threshold.
This builds on previous research that discovered sunscreen chemicals hit the bloodstream within a day of using them and at levels high enough to prompt a government investigation on safety.
“We slather these ingredients on our skin, but these chemicals haven’t been adequately tested,” says public health expert Nneka Leiba, EWG’s vice president of healthy living science. “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 2020 report released in May found that nearly 75 percent of sunscreens don’t work and/or contain concerning ingredients that are readily absorbed by the body.
EWG’s 14 years of sunscreen ingredient analysis suggests that while there have been major improvements over the last decade, the vast majority of sunscreens available for purchase in the U.S. still contain damaging chemicals or fail to offer enough protection against ultraviolet rays.
Of the more than 1,300 SPF sunscreens, moisturizers and lip balms analyzed in the updated EWG Sunscreen Database, only 25 percent offer adequate protection and are free of worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a suspected hormone disruptor linked to endometriosis, low sperm count and other health threats.
The good news is that after being behind the game for decades, the Food and Drug Administration has been taking positive steps to improving the state of sunscreen available in America. While the agency continues testing, the COVID-19 situation is delaying the finalizing of rules that would make sunscreen safer.
So for now, the onus is still on the consumer to find sunscreen that’s safer and actually works.
Are You Using the Best Sunscreens?
Over the past decade, the FDA has made multiple proposals to strengthen UVA protection in sunscreen products, but none has been made law. Last year, the FDA again proposed changes to require greater UVA protection, but they’ve been postponed.
For the time being, inferior products will remain on store shelves, despite scientific evidence that the most common ingredients are absorbed into the blood at levels that can cause harm, lack adequate safety testing and are formulated into products that may not adequately protect users from dangerous UVA rays.
The FDA proposed monograph was supposed to be finalized last year. “If adopted as written, that monograph would have ensured that all sunscreens sold in the U.S. would have been safer, providing stronger regulations around ingredient safety, UVA protection and capping high SPF values,” Burns explains. “Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, the monograph has not yet passed and language was included in the CARES Act, passed early this year, that maintains the status quo of our sunscreen industry and keeps inferior products on store shelves.”
Stay tuned to see how this pans out for the 2021 season.
Here’s more on the UVA dilemma…
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.
The FDA is finally voicing concern about the role of UVA rays in the development of skin cancer. It stated that “UVA exposure is a significant concern,” and high SPF products currently on the market may expose users to “excessively large UVA doses.”
Now, it’s important to note that there is no perfect sunscreen. Many contain harmful chemicals, and even mineral-based ones often 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 2020 best sunscreens report, the group analyzed the ingredients and labeling claims of more than 1,300 products with SPF, including 750 sport and beach sunscreens. So what are the best sunscreens out there? Let’s take a look.
The Best Sunscreens of 2020, Beach & Sport
“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:
365 Everyday Value Mineral Sunscreen Sport Lotion, SPF 30
All Good Sunstick, Unscented, SPF 30
Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
Badger Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 30
Badger Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30 & 35
Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
Block Island Organics Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Butterbean Organics Simple Healthy Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30+
Just Skin Food Baby Beach Bum Sunscreen Stick, SPF 31
Kabana Organic Skincare Green Screen Sunscreen Lotion, Original, SPF 32
Loving Naturals Clear Body Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Star Naturals Baby Natural Sunscreen Stick, SPF 25
Summer Lotion Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
SunBioLogic Men’s Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Sport, SPF 30
thinksport Body & Face Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
thinksport Kids Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50+
thinkbaby Body & Face Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
Waxhead Sun Defense Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
Also of note, many sunscreen powerhouse brands are now offering safer options, although not all of these brands’ offerings are considered safer EWG picks. (Scores of 0-2 are considered safer, while higher scores indicate poorer safety ratings.) EWG has been analyzing and pushing for safer sunscreens for more than a decade, and we are seeing positive shifts even within big brands. For instance, the following products made EWG’s best sunscreen list with a score of “2:”
Banana Boat Kids Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50
Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Neutrogena Clear Body Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Neutrogena Clear Face Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Best Sunscreens, Non-Mineral
This year’s rankings also includes the top picks for non-mineral brands, if you’re someone who can’t get onboard with the zinc oxide or titanium dioxide-based sunscreens. Most of these aren’t rated quite as safe as the above list, but you can compare to see what fits your needs best:
Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Lotion, Aloe Vera, SPF 30
Australian Gold Little Joey Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
Banana Boat Kids Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
CVS Health 30 Ultra Sheer Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Daylogic Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Hawaiian Tropic Island Sport High Endurance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
JASON Facial Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 20
Kiss My Face Sport Hot Spots Sunscreen Stick, SPF 30
Neutrogena Clear Face/Body Breakout Free Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
No-Ad Suncare General Protection Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15
Panama Jack Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Wegmans Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
The Best Sunscreens of 2020, Moisturizers
For its 2020 sunscreen report, EWG rated these products to be among the best:
Algenist Alive Prebiotic Balancing Moisturizer, SPF 15
Andalou Naturals Men Face Guard Daily Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Ao Skincare 6000X Elemental Screen, SPF 30
ATTITUDE Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
Biossance Squalane + Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30
Block Island Organics Natural Face Moisturizer, SPF 30
Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer, All Skin Types, SPF 15
DeVita Skin Care Solar Protect Lotion, SPF 30
Juice Beauty Oil-Free Moisturizer, SPF 30
Kari Gran Essential SPF Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 28
Keys KPRO Tinted Moisturizer with Sunscreen, SPF 30+
Loving Naturals Daily UV Cream, Unscented, SPF 20
MDSolarSciences Mineral Creme, SPF 30
Raw Elements Daily Lifestyle Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Solara Suncare Clean Freak Nutrient Boosted Daily Sunscreen, Unscented, SPF 30
Suntegrity 5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Tinted Face Sunscreen, SPF 30
Sunumbra Daily Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15+
Supergoop! Daily Correct CC Cream Lotion, SPF 35
thinksport Everyday Face Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Naturally Tinted, SPF 30+
White & Elm Everyday, SPF 15
If you’re looking for lip balm with SPF protection, EWG suggests these 15 picks.
Most Toxic Sunscreens to Avoid
Here’s a big takeaway that’ll make things somewhat less complicated. EWG recommends avoiding all spray sunscreens. Not only are they very difficult to apply effectiveness and evenly, but there’s some concern the ingredients could potentially cause irreversible lung damage. The truth is, the ingredients just haven’t been tested in the aerosol capacity for long-term impact on human health, like so many other everyday chemicals, unfortunately.
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 a bad choice for sun protection. Just remember, this list is not exhaustive. To check your favorite sunscreen or to peruse the database, click here.)
Walgreens Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
Sun Bum Moisturizing Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
Panama Jack Sunscreen Continuous Spray, SPF 100
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 85+
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100+
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+
Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60+
Neutrogena Age Shield Face Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 110
Equate Sport Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
Equate Beauty Ultra Light Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
CVS Health Ultra Sheer Lotion, SPF 100
CVS Health Sensitive Skin Sun Lotion, SPF 60+
CVS Health Ultra Protection Sun Lotion, SPF 100
Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
COOLA Classic Body Sunscreen Spray, Peach Blossom, SPF 70
Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
Banana Boat Ultra Defense Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
Banana Boat Kids MAX Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
Australian Gold Botanical Natural Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
Key Findings in EWG’s Sunscreen Report