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Nearly Three-Quarters of Sunscreens Don’t Work as Advertised: Study

June 5, 2017, 10:06 PM UTC
A girl applying suntan cream to the back of a sunburnt man. Vans Warped Tour, USA touring punk rock music festival, Bicentennial park, Miami, Florida, USA. 24th June 2006
Photo by PYMCA UIG—Getty Images

The official start of summer is almost here, pushing sunscreen to the top of many shopping lists.

But even people who stay well-stocked and diligently lathered in sun block may still find themselves inadequately protected. That’s because nearly three-quarters of all sunscreens on the market don’t work as well as they claim to, or they contain potentially harmful ingredients, according to a recent study from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Last month, the EWG released its 11th annual sunscreen guide, which analyzed more than 880 beach and sport sunscreens, as well as 480 moisturizers and 120 lip products containing SPF. The Washington, D.C.-based research group found that roughly 73% of the products it tested either contained “worrisome” products or they did offer the level of UV protection they advertised. EWG said those worrisome products can include oxybenzone, which is known to be a hormone disruptor, and retinyl palminate, a form of vitamin A that EWG says can sometimes actually heighten sensitivity to the sun.

The study also notes a rise in the number of mineral-only sunscreens on the market—representing 34% of the products EWG tested in 2017, double the number from a decade ago—while adding that those products often hold up better under the EWG researchers’ scrutiny. “Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to rate well in our analysis: They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation – UVA and UVB – and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives,” EWG said in its study.

The EWG study also slammed products that claim to offer SPF protection greater than SPF 50, which can be misleading. In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed rules to cap SPF values at SPF 50+ for that very reason, with EWG noting that FDA rules capping certain active ingredients mean that SPF 30 and SPF 100 products typically offer roughly the same amount of UVA protection.

As it has in the past, the latest EWG study also named several sunscreen products for children that received the worst scores in its analysis. Those kids products named by EWG include Banana Boat Kids Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100; Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion Kids, SPF 70; and Up & Up Kids Sunscreen Sticks, SPF 55.