Behind The Label: The Safe Sunscreen Debate

many sunscreens

Not all sunscreens are created equal.

Every summer for the past decade, the media has issued staunch advisories reminding consumers to wear sunscreen. But this year, their tone has changed. Studies are showing that not only are many sunscreens filled with potentially harmful chemicals, but also that sunscreen wearers can actually be more susceptible to dangerous skin cancer strains like melanoma. Too much time in the sun can increase the risk of damage, but too little can lead to vitamin D deficiencies. What gives? This week’s Behind The Label attempts to explain the current debate around sunscreen, just in time for Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

The Good

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, a scary statistic that doctors and dermatologists say can be prevented through regular use of broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens are formulated to block two kinds of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun: UVA rays, which are associated with premature aging and skin damage, and UVB rays, which are linked with sunburns. The SPF level of a sunscreen specifies its level of protection against UVB: an SPF of 15 filters out about 93 percent of incoming UVB rays, while an SPF of 50 keeps out approximately 98 percent. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, most SPF 15 sunscreens do a sufficient job of protecting against UVB rays, but the added protection provided by sunscreens over SPF 50 is negligible.

It’s UVA rays that are trickier to understand and protect against. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB rays, damaging skin cells in the basal layer of the epidermis where most skin cancers occur. Sunscreens marked “broad spectrum”, “multi spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” usually contain UVA-blocking ingredients like stabilized avobenzone, ecamsule, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide.

And now, those sunscreens will be easier to decipher thanks to a set of new regulations passed by the Food and Drug Administration last December. The new regulations introduce restrictions on using the terms “broad spectrum,” “waterproof,” and “sweatproof,” and it requires that any sunscreen under SPF 15 be labeled with a warning that reads. “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.” 

The Bad

Despite better labeling standards, the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Guide to Safer Sunscreens, released earlier this year, cautions consumers against taking manufacturer claims at face value. The annual review found “only minimal improvements” in products on the shelves and concludes that “many sunscreens available on the U.S. market do not filter sun-damaging rays safely and effectively.”

The guide reports that melanoma rates have tripled over the past 35 years, despite the fact that Americans seem to be more aware of the sun’s dangers. The EWG believes that one reason for this paradox may be misleading sunscreen marketing – “hype that causes people to believe, wrongly, that their products are blocking harmful rays.”

While the FDA’s new regulations may help to mitigate the hype, the EWG points out that the FDA’s criteria are weak compared to European Union standards. “Half of the U.S. sunscreens that meet the FDA rules would not make it to store shelves in Europe,” states the report.

Then, there’s the recent obsession with high SPFs, which can lead consumers to believe that they can stay in the sun longer than usual. But while a high SPF sunscreen can effectively block against UVB rays, they do nothing for skin-damaging, cancer-causing UVA rays. The European Union already levies a cap on SPF claims at 50+, and the FDA is considering a proposal to do the same.

And finally, there is the preponderance of potentially harmful chemicals present in conventional sunscreens. A form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate (or retinol) is present in 20 percent of sport sunscreens and has been linked to the acceleration of skin tumors and lesions when exposed to the sun, according to the EWG. Oxybenzone, found in 80 percent of chemical sunscreens, is a suspected hormone disruptor.

The Skin Cancer Foundation maintains that both retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone are safe and effective when used as directed, and that claims otherwise are based on “questionable science that is not properly reviewed by experts in the field of photo medicine.”


So What Now?

Look for broad-spectrum mineral sunscreens.

One thing that the Environmental Working Group and Skin Cancer Foundation can agree on is the continued need to include sunscreen as part of a comprehensive sun safety plan. But not all sunscreens are created equal. U.S. consumers have the choice between chemical sunscreens, which penetrate the skin and may contain hormone disruptors, and mineral sunscreens, which often contain micronized particles of zinc or titanium, which are suspected to be toxic if absorbed. While each option has its chemical downside, the EWG recommends broad-spectrum mineral sunscreens as the safest option, since they don’t appear to penetrate the skin, are stable in sunlight, and offer superior UVA protection. Check out EcoSalon’s list of Eco-Beauty Approved Sun Care Products for our recommendations, or the EWG’s 2013 Guide to Safer Sunscreens report for a full list of the 180 products that met its criteria this year.

Stock up on European formulations.

Unlike the United States, the European Union requires that all sunscreens offer UVA protection that is at least a third as potent as its SPF – meaning that if a sunscreen is SPF 30, its UVA protection must be at least 10. Europe allows manufacturers to use seven chemicals specifically designed to filter UVA rays; the U.S., in comparison, has only approved three. According to the EWG, three chemicals – Tinosorb S, Tinsorb M, and Mexoryl SX – are effective in blocking against UVA rays, but their use in America has been held up by delayed FDA approvals.

Apply enough.

Make sure that you’re applying at least one ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body, a half hour before going into the sun. Reapply every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.

Dress appropriately.

That means dark clothing, a broad rimmed hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses. Some performance activewear lines also include sun protection, such as prAna.

Avoid sunlight during peak hours.

Seek shade between the sun’s peak hours, generally between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sun exposure during this time can be particularly harmful.

Get a free skin cancer screening.

The Skin Cancer Foundation sponsors the annual Road to Healthy Skin Tour each May at Rite Aid Pharmacy locations across America. For this year’s dates, visit

Images: Robert S. Donovan, nemuneko.jc 

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.