Why Most Sunscreens Don't Work

Sunscreens were seriously burned this month, when a new ranking of more than 700 sunscreen products found that 84 percent did not provide adequate sun protection. The study, conducted by Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based nonprofit, looked at over 400 peer-reviewed articles on sunscreen ingredients. It found that many of the most popular sunscreens break down quickly in the sun or are not blocking many harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Rankings in the July 2007 issue of Consumer Reports revealed a similar problem: not all sunscreens are created equal. Rather, they found that sunscreens with the same sun protection factor (SPF) ran the gamut from "excellent" to "poor" in their overall ability to block ultraviolet rays.

While many people rely solely on SPF when selecting a sunscreen, these rankings show that the single number only tells half the story. SPF measures a sunscreen's ability to block UVB rays. But it says nothing about its strength against UVA rays, an equally damaging form of radiation that causes wrinkles and, more seriously, skin cancer. And unlike UVB rays that cause sunburns, UVA rays do not leave an immediate mark.

"We don't have a physical, visible way to know if we're protected against UVA radiation," says Jane Houlihan, vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). "Your skin looks fine, you're not burnt, and you could have a massive dose of UV radiation."

The issue is largely in the labeling—the Food and Drug Administration does not have any regulations on how sunscreens can accurately indicate their level of UVA protection, no quick and easy number like SPF. The agency began developing guidelines in 1978 but they have largely been at a standstill since 1999, when today's requirements were finalized.

In a statement this month, the FDA reports that a new regulation addressing UVA protection is "currently in its final clearance" and will likely be released by the end of the summer. Until those guidelines take effect, the FDA stands by its previous assertion that "approved sunscreens are safe and effective when used as directed."

Dermatologists, however, are not buying it. "Currently, there are no truly effective ways to measure the strength of UVA protection in sunscreens," says Hensin Tsao, an assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard University. While sunscreens have begun using labels like "broadspectrum" to indicate comprehensive UVA/UVB protection, no federal guidelines regulate how sunscreens can use the term and what level of protection it indicates. Says Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University,  "Anyone can put the words broadspectrum on a bottle so there's no easy way for the consumer to understand the labeling."

Overexposure to either UVA or UVB rays can lead to serious consequences—8,000 Americans die of melanoma each year, a form of skin cancer often caused by too much UV-exposure. "There are all these reasons to use sunscreen but this labeling is making it hard to do so correctly," says Rigel.

Looking for particular characteristics that aren't on the label, he says, can help make sunscreen decisions easier and smarter. Here are tips for navigating the sunscreen aisle:

SPF still matters: While SPF does not say everything about a sunscreen, it should still be an important factor in selection. Rigel suggests never going lower than 30.

Be ingredient savvy:   Unlike SPF, there is no quick and easy number to indicate a sunscreen's strength in blocking UVA rays. The best way to tell whether you are getting adequate UVA protection is to take a look at the ingredients. There are two ingredients that Rigel says are a good indication that you're UVA-safe: aveobenzone or parsol 1789.

Stay stable: While UVA-blocking ingredients are important, they also tend to cause the sunscreen to break down faster in the sun. This is why a third element is also necessary: ingredients to stabilize the sunscreen. Neutrogena with Helioplex Technology or anything with Mexoryl are Rigel's top choices for stable sunscreens.

Check the rankings:  The new EWG database allows consumers to compare sunscreens on different characteristics—without scanning labels for complex chemicals. Overall, Badger SPF 30, Peter Thomas Roth Titanium SPF 30, and Lavera Sunscreen Neutral SPF 40, received top marks. This does not that mean they are perfect, cautions Houlihan, but that they will do the best in keeping you sun safe.

Apply early and often: If you apply sunscreen when you start feeling the heat, you're already too late. "Some people only think about sunscreen when they start feeling warm," says Martin A. Weinstock, professor of dermatology at Brown University. "Meanwhile, they've gotten a dangerous dose of UV long before then." He recommends putting on sunscreen a half hour before heading outdoors and reapplying every few hours.

Want a tan? Fake it: "It's best not to bathe yourself in carcinogens to make a fashion statement," says Weinstock.  A change in skin color is always an indication of heavy exposure to UV rays. The safest and best color, Weinstock says, is the one you were born with.

Listen to your mother: No matter how well a sunscreen ranks, Houlihan cautions that there "isn't a perfect product or ingredient and there isn't perfect knowledge that sunscreen can do enough to completely protect us from skin cancer. It's important to not only use sunscreen but also follow the safety tips we've been told again and again." Those safety tips—make sure to cover all areas liberally, stay out of the sun at peak hours, and, most importantly, keep skin covered with hats and light clothing—combined with a safe sunscreen should give you one less thing to worry about when enjoying that day at the beach.

Join the Discussion