The Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Report: Are They Right?

Today the news media is abuzz with the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Report. I’m not quite sure why this is suddenly news since I’ve seen it on their website for quite a while, but I definitely thought that I need to address the report and let you know my take.

First, a little bit of background on the Environmental Working Group. The Environmental Working Group is one of the founding partners of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They run a website called Skin Deep, which is a nice website about ingredients in cosmetics. I like this website for a few things, primarily the fact that they often have a list of ingredients for many products (which saves me time from typing things in) and they sometimes will tell you what an ingredient does (which is something I can have problems finding on-line when I’m analyzing ingredient lists for my reviews).

The issue that I have with Skin Deep is the information that they supply for safety. (You can read more about how they compile this information here) I’m not really sure who they have reading studies to determine the validity and how well a study was performed, but I often find myself disagreeing with the EWG’s conclusions. Studies that are not well done with major flaws, not performed in humans, and with levels of a substance much higher than can ever be achieved in a human may often grossly overstate their findings. I’ve found that the EWG then even more overstates the importance of these findings and concludes that by using a product with said ingredient you will be causing major health risks.

While I do agree that we need more information about many ingredients, I think that overstating the findings of poorly controlled studies is also dangerous. The preservative class known as parabens is a classic example of such gross overstatement of findings. I’m not going to get more into that here, but just know that many people disagree with their conclusions regarding ingredient safety.

Having said all that, the EWG’s report came with some highlighted major points, so I’ll discuss them one at a time.

Many products lack UVA protection.
Our analysis found that 7 percent of high SPF sunscreens (SPF of at least 30) protect only from sunburn (UVB radiation), and do not contain ingredient combinations known to protect from UVA, the sun rays linked to skin damage and aging, immune system problems, and potentially skin cancer. FDA does not require that sunscreens guard against UVA radiation.

This is incredibly true. SPF only refers to protection from UVB and a large number of US sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays at all. Many of those that do protect from UVA only protect from short-wave UVA and ignore the long-wave UVA waves. Really, this is rather inexcusable and I recommend looking for only sunscreens that provide broad spectrum UVA/UVB coverage.

I also think that you can’t rely on the bottle to tell you if something is broad spectrum. Frequently the bottle just doesn’t tell you the whole truth, and you need to analyze the ingredients yourself. Luckily, the US FDA currently has only approved 17 ingredients to act as sunscreens, and they are easily found under “Active Ingredients” on each product.

To help things along I developed this handy chart above. All 17 ingredients are on this, but they are currently randomly scattered around to allow space for all of them to show up. It isn’t hard to line ingredients up though, notice that each UV range has it’s own “width” (UVB is 3 boxes, Short UVA 2 boxes and Long UVA is 6 boxes) as well the colors become darker with increasing wavelength. Each ingredient is easy to “plug in” to the correct coverage so you can see if broad spectrum coverage is provided, like I do for each of my sunscreen reviews (check out this example, Kiehl’s Vital Sun).

Sunscreens break down in the sun.
Paradoxically, many sunscreen ingredients break down in the sun, in a matter of minutes or hours, and then let UV radiation through to the skin. Our analyses show that 48% of products on the market contain ingredients that may be unstable alone or in combination, raising questions about whether these products last as long as the label says. FDA has not proposed requirements for sunscreen stability.

This is also true. There are some combinations of sunscreens that are much more stable while some combinations are well known to be very unstable once exposed to the sun. The best way to test stability has yet to be agreed upon, so there is often conflicting information about how stable an ingredient/combination is.

One well known example of this is Avobenzone with either Octocrylene or Octinoxate. There are quite a few studies looking at these combinations (just do a quick Medline search to find them), and they are mostly conflicting. There was one study in particular that found the Avobenzone/Octinoxate combination to be very unstable, lasting just a few minutes. However, the stability was tested differently than many other studies and subsequent studies have not confirmed these results. But, other studies about this same time did find that the Avobenzone/Octocrylene combination (much rarer in US sunscreen formulations but rather common in European formulations) to be more stable. The result? No one knows for sure what the best combination is. We know that Avobenzone/Octocrylene is stable, but we don’t know for sure that Avobenzone/Octinoxate is unstable. I know the girls over on the Makeup Alley Skin Care board are likely shaking their heads at me (they are firm believers in the OctiNOxate mantra), but the studies are there.

Truly, we need a Gold Standard for testing stability. We need to have more published data about these combinations. We also likely need the FDA to regulate this.

Questionable product claims are widespread.
Many products on the market bear claims that are considered “unacceptable” or misleading under FDA’s draft sunscreen safety standards. Claims like “all day protection,” “mild as water,” and “blocks all harmful rays” are not true, yet are found on bottles. Until FDA sets an effective date for these standards, industry is free to use hyped claims. Companies’ decisions to inflate claims has spurred class action lawsuits in California.

Very true. All sunscreens should be reapplied every 2 hours, it doesn’t matter what you’ve been up to. Reapply everything after swimming. Very few products on the market actually block all wavelengths in the UVA/UVB spectrum and even then even the highest SPF products only block about 95-99% of the rays. Really companies shouldn’t state these things since it only makes the less educated consumer confused.

Many sunscreens contain nano-scale ingredients that raise potential concerns.
Micronized and nano-scale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in sunscreen provide strong UVA protection, and are contained in many of our top-rated products. Repeated studies have found that these ingredients do not penetrate healthy skin, indicating that consumers’ exposures would be minimal. Powder and spray sunscreens with nano-scale ingredients raise greater concerns, since particles might absorb more easily through the lungs than the skin. Studies of other nano-scale materials have raised concerns about their unique, toxic properties. FDA has failed to approve effective UVA filters available in Europe that, if approved here, could replace nano-scale ingredients.

Many physical sunscreens on the market today are smaller particles of Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide, which allows them to create a finer film on your skin which is much more pleasant. (No more chalky white nose!) But, it does seem very reasonable that if you’re spraying it on or applying powder all over that it might aerosolize into the air and you could breathe it in. We don’t know how that affects your lungs.

The U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to products that work and are safe.
FDA has approved just 17 sunscreen chemicals for use in the U.S. At least 29 are approved for use in the E.U. FDA has approved only 4 chemicals effective in the UVA range for use in the U.S., and has failed to approve new, more effective UVA filters available in the E.U. and Asia.

This is why it was such a big deal when Ecamsule was approved, it was the first in an incredibly long time. The Europeans are much more progressive than the US when it comes to sunscreen. Let me know if there is a cult sunscreen that people are importing now (I’m really not sure) and I’ll pick it up to review when I’m in Paris in October!

Some sunscreens absorb into the blood and raise safety concerns.
Our review of the technical literature shows that some sunscreen ingredients absorb into the blood, and some are linked to toxic effects. Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some could disrupt hormone systems, several are strongly linked to allergic reactions, and others may build up in the body or the environment. FDA has not established rigorous safety standards for sunscreen ingredients that fully examines these effects.

I think I’ve already addressed this concern above. I frequently don’t agree with the EWG’s conclusions about a product’s safety, I think they have misinterpreted many studies.

Overall Results
Only 15% of 952 products analyzed met EWG’s criteria for safety and effectiveness, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards. Our assessment is based on a detailed review of hundreds of scientific studies, industry models of sunscreen efficacy, and toxicity and regulatory information housed in nearly 60 government, academic, and industry databases.

I think that the EWG may be discounting many great sunscreens due to their ingredient safety analysis. Personally, I still think that there are a lot of great sunscreens available at many price points. I recommend analyzing the active ingredients for yourself for UVA/UVB coverage, applying 1 ounce of sunscreen per application and reapplying every 2 hours when you are out in the sun. Oh, and hope with me that the FDA finally completes their sunscreen regulation, which was mandated by Congress to be complete by 2006. This should give us standards for stability and hopefully some more approved ingredients as well as improved regulations for UVA coverage.



  1. July 1, 2008 / 8:30 pm

    Thank you SO MUCH for saying this about the EWG and Skin Deep. Some of their reports just reek of fearmongering. It drives me nuts when products are branded “potentially unsafe” by them for bizarre reasons, like fragrance or minute amounts of potential allergens. Of course some people might be irritated by fragrance, but it doesn’t necessarily make the product unsafe. Jeez. If we took their word as bond we’d have to toss everything in our makeup bags!

  2. Anonymous
    July 1, 2008 / 8:39 pm

    I love your medical perspective, especially reagarding sunscreen. I also love the diagram you provided show what part of the spectrum an ingrediant protects against. I keep a copy in my purse!

  3. July 2, 2008 / 12:18 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this post! I trust your opinion, and it was nice to read something balanced and critically thought out on this subject. Thank you Christine! 🙂

  4. Anonymous
    July 2, 2008 / 2:29 pm

    Thank you for being a voice of reason. I’m not a scientist but took enough science classes to have a good nose for BS, and my husband was trained in chemistry and physics. We’re constantly appalled by wacky or merely overbroad bad science in the media (and in our family – a relative whose father was a MD/PhD routinely tries to explain to all of us how soy, sweet potatoes and various herbs and tree barks are far superior to all modern meds – Oy, what can you say to those people).

  5. July 2, 2008 / 6:22 pm

    Thank you so much for doing this post! All the information out there about sunscreen is rather overwhelming.

  6. July 2, 2008 / 6:26 pm


    I’ve been lurking around your blog for a while and I like your input on sunscreens. It’s good that we have the EWG to alert consumers about these issues. However, they always overemphasize their points which I don’t like. Thanks for giving your side of the story as well.

  7. July 3, 2008 / 1:47 pm

    I think this post is really great. Thanks for the information on sunscreens. It helps to know which sunscreens really do have wide-spectrum coverage no matter what the package says.

    You mention parabens in your post – something that I was a little freaked out over. I’ll have to see if I can’t find more info on it! Thanks!

  8. July 3, 2008 / 3:13 pm

    Beauty Addict- I completely agree with you Kristen! Discounting a product because one person in a million has incredibly sensitive skin and is irritated by a fragrance ingredient is completely insane. Some people really have to have something to fight against, and I guess this is their thing!

    Dream Stela- The deal with Parabens is that there is a LOT of very scary stuff out there on the internet, so here’s the scoop: Parabens are preservatives that are found in basically every product we use. There are very few alternatives to them, so it’s pretty hard to avoid them. In the lab they have been found to activate the same receptors as estrogen, though they do so to a much weaker extent than estrogen itself. In fact, they are so weak that in order to get a physical effect in a person you would need levels in the body many thousands of times higher than you could ever achieve even with basically injecting them into your body. Even then no one knows if you would necessarily see the same effects in the body as with estrogen, such as “normal” hormone activities or even bad effects such as increased risk of breast cancer.

    Part of the paraben controversy was created by a European study in which they looked at breast cancer tumors and did find parabens within the tumors. They then made the huge leap in logic to say that because the parabens were there they obviously caused the cancer. But, we don’t know about levels in other tissues (given the similarities to estrogen it seems very likely that it would be found in high levels in fat for example), we don’t know if it is also found in those without cancer, we don’t know if you can cause cancer by injecting it, etc. It really should be more of an unknown association rather than actually saying it was caused.

    Those that feel strongly against Parabens will point out that the incidence of breast cancer is increasing, etc. However, they leave out the huge increases in screening that have made much earlier detection possible as well.

    So, I think that while all of this stuff is being sorted out it is a good idea to avoid them if you want, but know that they have not been proven to cause breast cancer.

  9. Anonymous
    July 6, 2008 / 4:34 pm

    Great article. Love the spectrum chart above.

    I’m curious though, sunscreen has to be reapplied after two hours … what is the point of putting it on in the AM prior to work when the sun’s ray’s are at their lowest.

    True, you probably ought to have it on when your traveling about on a lunch break – but by then whose reapplying sunscreen??? By the time you leave you need to leave work you reapply again.

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I wonder if much of the chemicals are simply wasted and unnecessary?

    What do you think?

  10. July 6, 2008 / 9:08 pm

    I do know what you mean. Fortunately the majority of sunscreens are stable for much longer, more along the lines of 4-5 hours in direct sunlight. Even those that are stable for short periods of time (1 hour or less) will last much longer when not in direct sun.

    Which means for regular wear (meaning, out running errands rather than sitting by the pool in Mexico) you should be just fine applying a moisturizer with SPF 15 or 30. If you do end up sitting outside later for any length of time (eg- you eat lunch at an outside restaurant, read the paper for an hour in the late afternoon on your deck, etc) I recommend applying more sunscreen, even on days that it is cloudy out. For those times I tend to carry a small bottle of sunscreen in my purse and I try to sit in the shade if possible.

    For days that you are spending a lot of time out in the sun (like a day at the pool, at a baseball game or even just hanging out on your patio) you definitely want to reapply every 2 hours to ensure that you are still getting the appropriate amount of coverage.

  11. November 5, 2008 / 11:06 am

    Hi. What a great post….so balanced and informative…love your chart – makes it so easy to understand. I am doing a post on sunscreen and will link back to this…

    Two great products I have found in Australia both zinc based. The first is Invisible Zinc by Environmental Skin Protection (Elle is the spokesperson) – you would never know it is zinc! Here is the linnk if you are interested

    The other I use for my kids – wotnot – It is totally natural (including the preservative) and goes on really well.

    Thanks again!


  12. April 3, 2012 / 5:49 pm

    Thanks for this great informative post. Finally someone who really explains things well and without any "gossip".

    @ Patty – did you see the full ingredient list of Invisible zinc? It didn't really make me happy…

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