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Your Summer 2019 Sunscreen Guide: 4 Tips To Find A Safe Option From The EWG

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy
May 22, 2019

We're about to enter a very exciting time in sunscreens—at least according to the Environmental Working Group, who just released their annual sunscreen guide. For so long the activist group has pushed for stricter regulations, or at the very least more research to be conducted around the active ingredients used in common SPFs. Well, that time might be coming soon.

Here are the major take-aways.

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Look for these two ingredients—only.

"What is so special about this year is that the FDA just came out with their proposed set of rules for sunscreen, highlighting the vast majority of things that we at the EWG has been highlighting for the last 13 years, including efficacy and ingredient safety," says Nneka Leiba, director of healthy living sciences at EWG. "It's really powerful."

For the first time, the FDA is proposing that ingredients in sunscreen be thoroughly tested for skin absorption rate and whether they have any side effects. Based on these new potential standards, the agency has recognized only two ingredients as being adequately tested for safety and efficacy: zinc oxide and titanium oxide. The agency also flagged 12 ingredients commonly found in SPF (over 50 percent of products contain these 12 actives, according to the EWG) for further research.

This is, of course, great news for consumers, but the FDA's proposed changes won't affect what's on the shelves this year (if they go forward as written, at all). So there's good reason to use caution: The EWG assessed over 13,000 SPF products and found that two-thirds contain potentially toxic ingredients or offer inferior protection. This included 750 beach and sport products—or when most consumers are exposed to harsh sunlight for long periods of time.

Be wary of "broad spectrum" labels.

One of the most concerning elements of the EWG report is the lack of proper protection against UVA rays. Essentially a brand can market an SPF as "broad spectrum" even if it's not clear how effectively it's protecting skin against UVA rays.

A brief explanation of UVA versus UVB: They are both skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, but they manifest in different capacities. UVB is what will cause burns and tans: So UVB is the more obvious of the two and what people tend to focus on more. However, UVA rays are likely just as dangerous in terms of skin cancer rates, even if you can't see the damage.

"Even the FDA has noted that we don't know enough about UVA, and it might be contributing to skin cancer more than we previously thought," says Leiba. "But there's no way to look at a bottle and see how well it actually protects against those rays, as the SPF number only corresponds to the UVB."

European regulations are much stricter than the U.S. standards (go figure): Under their rules, UVA protection must increase alongside UVB protection, which is not the case here. ("We in the U.S. have a very low standard of what you need to do to acquire that 'Broad Spectrum' mark, and what the FDA has finally acknowledged is that they need to reevaluate that," says Leiba.) And the EWG estimates that 50% of our sunscreens could not meet European regulations.

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High SPF can be misleading.

According to the EWG's guide and a new report from the FDA, sunscreens with high SPF numbers (think: north of 50, according to the EWG) give people a false sense of safety, which negatively affects behavioral patterns. For example, they might not apply as much or as regularly.

Because of this, the FDA is proposing to limit any SPF claim to 60+, as products with higher numbers have not been clinically shown to provide significant additional benefit—especially when it comes to UVA protection.

"No matter how much you apply, with a product that doesn't give balanced or adequate protection, you're never going to get balanced protection," says Leiba.

Nanoparticles should be avoided in sprays.

There's been a lot of concern surrounding the nanoparticles that can found in mineral sunscreens—it's why you'll often see mineral options specifically shout out "non-nano" on their products.

"We understand the concerns, but all the testing that we have looked at shows that there is minimal absorption of minerals, nano or not, on unbroken skin, so we are not concerned about them in cream and lotions," says Leiba. "However, in sprays they could be a problem."

This is why the EWG doesn't recommend sprays of any variety. In fact, the FDA stated in their proposed rules that they are going to set a size limit for the particles in spray options—"so that the smallest particles, that can get into the deep lungs, cannot be used," says Leiba.

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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.