Here comes the sun. Along with the pleasures of warm weather and more time enjoying the great outdoors, the usual host of concerns and confusion about sunscreen return. The struggle to separate fact from fiction has become an annual ritual as news reports trickle in and clickbait headlines scream apocalyptic warnings.
The good news is, as more people become aware of the importance — and potential shortfalls — of sunscreen, an increasing amount of new research is emerging.
Case in point: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a proposal in February 2019 in the Federal Register for updated sunscreen regulations. And in May 2019, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, released its 13th Annual Guide to Sunscreens.
The bad news is the new EWG report found that roughly two-thirds of the sunscreens available in the United States don’t provide adequate protection or contain ingredients that the FDA has not yet established are safe and effective. Unlike in Europe, which regulates sunscreens like beauty products, and where 27 active sunscreen ingredients are approved by the government, in the United States, the FDA currently only allows the use of 16 active ingredients. But 12 of them, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, were recently determined by the FDA to need further testing before being considered safe.
Americans are becoming more concerned with using nontoxic products in their households — as noted in a story published in August 2018 in Progressive Grocer — so it’s not surprising that there’s a corresponding increase in the search for so-called clean sunscreens. After all, it’s something you apply directly to your body’s largest organ. But there’s so much misinformation on social media that, according to a study published in May 2019 in the journal Health Communication, some people are clicking on links about how to make your own homemade sunblock — with dangerous results. (Read: Coconut oil and beeswax don’t work — sorry, Pinterest.)
To sort through what the report found and quickly cut to the bottom line, we narrowed your sunscreen shopping checklist down to these six easy steps:
1. Read the Label Before Choosing Your Sunscreen
Sorting through a list of ingredients that are hard enough to pronounce, much less understand, can be downright overwhelming. So what are the key things to keep in mind? “Look for sunscreen that’s labeled as broad-spectrum and has at least an SPF of 30,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist based in New York City. “This means it protects against both UVB and UVA rays.”
One caveat about SPF levels: While doctors recommend at least 30, according to the EWG, products with claims of high SPF values are on the rise and misleading. One problem is that the SPF value on product labels only pertains to UVB protection. So a sunscreen with an over-the-top SPF may not adequately shield skin from the harmful ultraviolet A rays that cause skin aging and possibly melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.
According to the FDA, high SPF products can also mislead people into thinking they are completely protected from sunburn and long-term skin damage. This false sense of security sometimes causes people to think it’s okay to spend more time in direct sunlight, so they end up getting more ultraviolet rays, not less.