Only 1 in 4 sunscreens on the market are safe and effective, new study finds

Out of 1,700 products tested, which included recreational sunscreens and daily-use SPF products, nearly 300 contain harmful chemicals.
A person applying sunscreen on their arm
Posted at 3:27 PM, May 15, 2024

With summer just around the corner, it's a good time to gear up for the sunny days ahead, and that usually means stocking up on sunscreen.

But before you go shopping make sure to check the label to protect your skin well, as a new study suggests that only 1 in 4 sunscreens on the market are both safe and effective.

According to the Environmental Working Group, out of 1,700 products tested, which included recreational sunscreens and daily-use SPF products, nearly 300 contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, or both; half of the products raise significant concerns about allergies; and almost 30% list "fragrance" on the label as an undisclosed mystery ingredient.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate, both found in many chemical sunscreens, are not only harmful to human health, but also the environment. The National Institutes of Health reports that they are known to cause allergies in people and disrupt hormones, while in nature they harm coral reefs and fish, causing bleaching and even death.

"The sunscreen industry has been stuck with a regulatory status quo from the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and people worried that computer systems would fail due to the Y2K bug. Companies continue to use product ingredients approved by the FDA in 1999, even though the agency has said there isn’t adequate safety data to use those ingredients," the study notes.

Hands pour out some sunscreen from a bottle.

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The report says that although it's tempting to choose sunscreens with higher UVA protection or more ingredients specifically from products approved overseas, it's worth noting that some ingredients in newer sunscreens may not be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has classified only two ingredients— zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — as safe and effective active ingredients.

So, if you're ready to stock up on some sunscreen, EWG recommends that you avoid unfamiliar ingredients, opt for mineral products with zinc oxide, ignore higher than 50+ SPF labels, and buy lotions and sticks over sprays. Additionally, EWG has a top-rated sunscreen list that you can use to find the perfect protection for this summer.