The EWG's 2020 Guide To Sunscreens Is Here: 6 Things To Know Before Slathering On
Sure, the world may feel like it's upside down at the moment, but summer is still on the horizon; although the barbecues and beach getaways may look a little different nowadays, the sun is just as scorching—even from your bedroom window. Just in time for the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to release their 14th annual guide to sunscreens, where they assess more than 1,300 SPF products, sorting through all the available research to decipher how we should navigate the ever-expanding sunscreen market.
If you stay up-to-date on the sunscreen conversation, you likely know some of the talking points below, but it's always good to have a refresher. Here, their 2020 recommendations for what we should slather on all summer:
1. In general, sunscreens should protect more against UVA.
A little refresher on sunscreen for you: Good sunscreens will protect against both the sun's UVA and UVB rays. While both forms of UV radiation can be harmful to the skin, UVA rays can penetrate more deeply into the dermal layer and cause photoaging by damaging collagen. Needless to say, protecting against both UVA and UVB rays is paramount; the problem is, according to Carla Burns, EWG research and database analyst, "The SPF value on the label is tied to UVB, but it's not necessarily tied to UVA protection in the U.S." Europe has way stronger standards for SPF labels (no surprise), requiring a proportional amount of UVA and UVB protection. "Looking at the products in this year's guide, we found that 70% of the products did not meet European standards and would not be able to be sold there," Burns tells mbg.
That said, the EWG urges for regulations regarding higher levels of UVA protection that's proportional to SPF values. In the meantime, they advise you to choose products that provide adequate UVA and UVB protection (see our recs, below).
2. As we've said before: Avoid products that contain oxybenzone.
If you remember from last year's report, the FDA regarded only two sunscreen ingredients as safe (mineral superstars zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), requiring additional investigation for 12 other common sunscreen ingredients. One of those common ingredients is oxybenzone, which the EWG found in more than 40% of the non-mineral sunscreens in this year's guide.
The problem is, oxybenzone is a potential endocrine disrupter, which means it could impact hormone levels and reproduction. Specifically, oxybenzone has been shown to absorb through the skin in remarkably large amounts, even detected in human breast milk, urine, and blood. Children, in particular, may be more vulnerable to this allergenic ingredient, the EWG reports, with even higher absorption and bioaccumulation rates. That said, they recommend you avoid products that contain oxybenzone (which isn't so difficult if you opt for mineral options, anyway).
3. Be smart with SPF numbers.
If you have two sunscreen products, with one boasting SPF 100 and the other SPF 50, the SPF 100 must offer double the amount of protection, right? Not quite. The FDA found that extra protection between SPF 50 and SPF 100 to be pretty negligible.
It's not that higher numbers are inherently bad, however. The problem is they may affect user behavior—and that's where the issues come up: They give people a false sense of security. For example, if you trust that an SPF 100 will keep you protected, you might not reapply every two hours like you should. As Burns explains, "The higher SPF does not guarantee more protection against both skin cancer risk and sunburns, so you really need to reapply regardless of the SPF value."
4. Spray and powder sunscreens come with precautions.
We get it—spray sunscreens triumph in terms of ease, especially if you have young, fidgety family members. But taking the extra few minutes to coat yourself with a cream is well worth it, according to the EWG, for a couple of reasons. The most notable is that sunscreen sprays and powders may pose an inhalation risk, where certain nanoparticles can travel into the lungs.
Let's say you have a powder that has non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (it will say so on the label, usually). Are you good to go then? Again, this is where user behavior comes into play. You may not apply the correct amount of sunscreen as you powder up—you need way more than just a light coat to ensure proper UV protection.
"The SPF that's on the label correlates to a proper application of sunscreen, which is approximately 1 ounce, or a shot glass full of sunscreen for your body," Burns tells mbg. And if you're using sprays, chances are you're not applying that thick of a layer to your entire body. So while the ease of spray and powder sunscreens may seem attractive, it might do way more harm in the long run. Stick to lotions, recommends the EWG, so you'll know just how much UV protection you're really getting.
5. Antioxidants are great, but they can mask issues.
It's no secret we love our antioxidants here at mbg, but be mindful of how they're used in sunscreens. Many products boast antioxidant and botanical extracts (ever see a sunscreen with vitamin C or E?), which is all fun and good until it comes down to reducing inflammation.
You're probably thinking, Uh, isn't reducing inflammation a good thing? And it is, except when your body is trying to tell you that you've been in the sun for far too long. Sunburns, painful as they might be, are your body's way of warning you that you're getting too much UV rays. So "If you are using products with antioxidants in them, you might not be getting as red and getting that alert that your body is getting burned," Burns explains. "But you might still be getting other harmful effects from UV radiation."
Just keep in mind that you should always reapply every two hours, even if you don't see any redness.
6. Avoid sunscreens and daytime products with vitamin A.
If you're familiar with vitamin A, perhaps you've dabbled in a retinol serum for reducing fine lines. And as dermatologists will tell you, you should use those products only at night, as they can make the skin more sensitive to the sun.
Which is why the EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens that contain vitamin A additives (they're surprisingly common, according to the report). "There have been past tests on retinol palmitate, which showed that it speeds up the development of skin tumors when it's on sun-exposed skin," says Burns. That said, definitely avoid daytime products with vitamin A additives; if you are using them at night, be sure to use a proper SPF product when you're out in the sun.
So how should we protect our skin this summer?
First things first: If you are opting for a non-mineral product, make sure you don't see any of the harmful chemical players on the label. Burns recommends using products that contain avobenzone, as it's a great UVA protectant. It does need a stabilizer, however (it tends to break down in the sun), and that's where the ingredients can become a little iffy. Nonetheless, "avobenzone is not something to be a great concern because it does provide such great UVA protection," she explains.
Of course, you could avoid that concern altogether by reaching for mineral options with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide instead. It's even easier to go mineral now, with lots of creamy options that don't leave the dreaded white cast. Whether you choose a chemical or mineral product, be sure to use lotions or sticks over sprays, and make sure you're applying every two hours with a thick enough layer.
"Choosing the best sunscreen is a very personal decision depending on your preferences for your own skin, different scents, and application type," Burns adds. The good news? There are tons of options that meet the EWG's criteria (180, to be exact), and we've highlighted our favorites from the list below. Times may be unprecedented in 2020, but you can always practice safe sun.
Shop these products:
Burt's Bees Baby Sunscreen SPF 30
Beautycounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
La Roche-Posay Anthelios SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen Gentle Lotion
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40
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