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Sunscreen Sold in the US Prevents Burns But Not Necessarily Cancer

A new report points to some problematic truths about SPF.
Image: Maciej Serafinowicz

The Environmental Working Group released its 11th annual Guide to Sunscreens Tuesday, just in time to scare everyone into canceling their Memorial Day plans. This year, the EWG rated nearly 1,500 sunscreens, moisturizers, and lip balms that touted sun protection, and found that 73 percent of those products "don't work well" or "contain worrisome ingredients."

Let's clear something up before we dive into the things you should actually worry about: Those "worrisome" ingredients aren't all that worrisome. Oxybenzone is, in fact, a "known hormone disruptor" if you eat crazy-large amounts of it, and are also a rat. Seriously—in order for humans to absorb as much oxybenzone as the rats had in their systems (in one study, the chemical acted like estrogen and enlarged their uteruses), you'd have to apply sunscreen to your face neck and hands every day for 277 years. You likely don't even use enough of the stuff when you're at the beach, so no worries there.


Another worrisome-but-not-really ingredient: Retinyl palmitate, which has been found to accelerate skin damage—again, in rats. This time, albino ones that are already more susceptible to skin cancer than humans. That specific study was never actually published in a peer-reviewed journal, but another one (which found zero evidence of retinyl palmitate raising cancer risk in humans) was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. So there's that.

No, poor sun protection is what you should really be worried about. Broad-spectrum is the best bet for overall protection—it guards against UVA rays, which are connected to skin aging and wrinkling, and UVB, which are typically linked to sunburns, though, crucially, both types can contribute to skin cancer.

But here's the thing: Sunscreens sold in the US aren't great at shielding UVA rays, even if they're labeled as broad spectrum. Avobenzone, the primary ingredient used to shield against UVA rays in non-mineral sunscreens, is capped at 3 percent, which means your SPF 30 sunscreen has the same amount of UVA protection as an SPF 100. It's different in Europe, where a sunscreen's UVA protection must be at least a third as potent as its SPF rating (that is, an SPF 30 needs to have UVA protection of at least 10). Half of the 880 beach and sport sunscreens the EWG reviewed this year aren't strong enough to be sold overseas. So maybe you didn't get burned, but it's possible that your lotion or spray is weak UVA-wise and you got major skin damage that you can't see. You might have even stayed out longer in the sunshine because you weren't getting burned, unknowingly soaking up all those UVA rays.


Back to that SPF 100 sunscreen: Anything over SPF 50 is more of a marketing gimmick than a superior sunshield. Sunscreen rated SPF 30 protects against 97 percent of UVB rays, SPF 50 shields against 98 percent, and SPF 100 guards against 99 percent. No sunscreen will protect you 100 percent, and SPF 100 is not twice as strong as SPF 50. The FDA was on the right track in 2011 when they proposed to cap SPF values at "50+," effectively calling out the higher numbers as misleading, but that rule was never finalized, according to the EWG. So, yes, there is still SPF 100 on shelves today.

"SPF values over 50 mislead people into thinking they are completely protected from sunburn and long-term skin damage," David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG said in a release. "Instead they may encourage people to spend more time in the sun, exposing themselves to more, not less ultraviolet rays." And, you know, not reapply as often.

So what do you do in a world where sunscreen sounds like a letdown? Well, you still need the stuff; it's your best protection against those harmful UV rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends wearing a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF of 15 every day and using SPF 30 or higher when you'll be outside for a while. Choose a mineral sunscreen if you're still wary of chemicals, and actually wear the stuff. Coat yourself in two tablespoons about 30 minutes before going outside, then keep applying that same amount every two hours until you go back inside and after sweating a lot or swimming.

And it should go without saying, but sunscreen isn't the only sun-protection tool: Shirts, hats, pants, sunglasses—they should all be part of your summer wardrobe. But it might be easier (and less sweaty) to just apply vigilantly. Or wear a full-coverage bodysuit. Do you.

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