The Truth Behind ‘Safe’ Sunscreens


With summer official start, sun is shining more brightly and temperatures are on the rise. More sunlight means more ultraviolet light, which on the other hand poses a serious risk to your skin and health. Overexposure to UV light can not only lead to sunburn, but it actually has much more harmful, long-lasting health effects from wrinkles to cancer.

Ultraviolet light consists of UVB rays, which cause sunburn, and UVA rays, which penetrate the skin much deeper. Both, however, can lead to skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the U.S. with over 3.5 million new cases each year. In fact, it accounts for nearly 50% of all cancer cases.

In spite of the fact that sunscreen use is higher than ever, skin cancer incidence continues to rise significantly.

The Environmental Working Group has just released their annual Sunscreen Guide, with recommendations for only 39 of the 500 sunscreen products reviewed. The EWG found many products misleading in their claims, lacking in adequate protection from all types of ultraviolet radiation, and containing many potentially hazardous chemicals. Because the FDA still has not issued any sunscreen industry regulations, which they began drafting 32 years ago, consumers are left to discover the safest products on their own.

EWG Senior Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan said, “Many sunscreens available in the U.S. may be the equivalent of modern-day snake oil, plying customers with claims of broad-spectrum protection but not providing it, while exposing people to potentially hazardous chemicals that can penetrate the skin into the body.”


It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many companies produce sunscreens labeled as organic when they in fact contain synthetic chemicals. But that’s not the worst of it. According to research, sunscreens give users a false sense of security in that while they effectively prevent sunburn, they do little or nothing to prevent skin cancer or the accelerated aging of the skin caused by sunlight.

What’s more, there is a substantial body of evidence that shows that there is an increase in cancer when sunscreen products are used, the bottom line being that hardly any sunscreen ingredients which are considered to be safe are found.

Increased Skin Cancer Risk

New FDA research data reveal that a type of Vitamin A (found on the label as ‘retinyl palmitate’ or ‘retinol’), which is in 41% of sunscreens, may in reality increase the growth of cancerous skin tumors and lesions. While vitamin A is used in many skin products for its antioxidant properties to slow skin aging, in the sun it may have photocarcinogenic properties that can damage the skin more than protect it. The FDA’s one-year study found that lab animals coated in a cream with Vitamin A and exposed to sunlight daily developed skin tumors and lesions 21% sooner than the control animals with no vitamin A. These data are however only preliminary.



One thing sunscreens are definitely known to be effective at is their ability to prevent sunburns. They do this by successfully blocking UVB, the shorter radiation rays from the sun. In doing so, sunscreen is proven to reduce the risk of squamous-cell carcinoma, but not any other types of skin cancer. SCC accounts for only about 16% of skin cancer cases. UVA rays penetrate much deeper, and most sunscreens in the U.S. are very poor at protecting against this. Studies have actually shown that due to inadequate UVA protection, many sunscreen users may be more at risk for developing melanoma skin cancer because of their prolonged exposure to sunlight (thinking the sunscreen compensates for the additional exposure). Malignant melanoma is only 3-4% of all skin cancer cases, but is the cause of 75% of skin cancer related deaths.

Does It Work or Not?

The debate over skin cancer and sunscreen’s role in protecting from it can be a confusing one to follow. The FDA stated that it is “not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends wearing protective clothing, spending time in shade, and timing your direct sun activity, instead of relying solely on sunscreen for protection. They also suggest that some sunscreen users may feel more protected than they really are, exposing their skin to direct sunlight for longer periods of time as a result, which could possibly increase their risk of skin cancer. On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute concludes that there is no definitive evidence that any type of protection (sunscreen or clothing) decreases the risk of skin cancer, and whether non-melanoma skin cancer chances are reduced from avoiding the sun. Regardless, the EWG stands by hats, clothing, and shade as the most reliable sun protection.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is produced by your body when the skin comes in contact with sunlight. An important vitamin, it plays many vital roles in our body, essential for healthy bones and immune systems, and reducing the risk of numerous cancers. Sunscreen can block 97% of your body’s vitamin D production, and 70% of children in the U.S. have low levels of the vitamin. The American Medical Association suggests 10-15 minutes of direct sunscreen-free sunlight exposure multiple times a week for maintaining adequate vitamin D levels. Other organizations suggest taking vitamin D supplements or including it more in your diet (found in certain fishes, eggs, and mushrooms). For the best recommendation, have your doctor test your vitamin D level and consult you on the solutions that are right for you.

Misleading SPF

Currently, no studies support that higher Sun Protection Factor levels (50+) offer any additional protection from skin damage and skin cancer risk. These higher rated products have become increasingly popular, but pose many risks. Most people who use them readily admit to extending their time in direct sunlight due to the confidence of safety they get from the product. Unfortunately, they do not reapply the sunscreen once it has worn off, and the average person only uses 20%-50% of the actual amount used to achieve the advertised SPF rating. Additionally, the high-SPF products contain greater amounts of sun-blocking chemicals that may pose health risks like tissue damage and hormone disruption, thus increasing a person’s exposure to these chemicals more than if they used a lower-SPF sunscreen.

The Lesser Of Two Evils

Unfortunately, when it comes to deciding between sunscreen options, consumers ultimately have to choose between hormone-disrupting chemical formulas, or potentially toxic mineral-based ingredients. Mineral sunscreens use zinc-oxide or titanium-dioxide in extremely small particles that could be toxic if they penetrate the skin. Fortunately, most studies have concluded that they do not penetrate into the bloodstream, though research is still ongoing. Because mineral sunscreens provide far superior UVA protection than non-mineral sunscreens, they are more highly recommended by the EWG, though they only constitute 20% of the sunscreen products available. Oxybenzone is the most common active ingredient in sunscreen and is associated with allergic reactions and potential hormone disruption, and scientists highly recommend against using it on children due to its ease of penetrating the skin. Unfortunately, the least toxic and most effective chemical sunscreen ingredients are currently only available in Europe’s superior sunscreen products, and have long been awaiting FDA approval in the U.S.

The Best

Only 8% of the 500 sunscreen products tested by the EWG rated high for safety and efficacy. Their top rated products were all mineral-based, offering the best UVA protection without any hormone disrupting chemicals or vitamin A. The top of their 500 reviewed sunscreens included products by Soleo Organics, UV Natural, Purple Prairie Botanicals, Jason Natural Cosmetics, California Baby, Badger, All Terrain, and Loving Naturals, among others.

The Worst

Many products are rated very low by the EWG for their inclusion of hormone-altering chemicals, vitamin A, misleading SPF ratings, poor UVA protection, and other concerns. Products by Banana Boat, Neutrogena, Coppertone, Aveeno, Hawaiian Tropic, CVS, Solar Sense, Rx Suncare, Peter Thomas Roth, Rite Aid, Panama Jack, Ocean Potion, and No-Ad all ranked worst, among others.

What to Do

Small amounts of sun are healthy. Adults and children should remain indoors (at work and school or play) during the hottest part of the day, and when they venture out they should be sure to cover themselves properly. Schedule your gardening, errands, play, etc., for early morning or evening hours. The optimal recommended protection is: loose-fitting clothing, shady trees and big floppy hats. Organic cotton is a good way to go!