Toxic-Free Fun in the Sun: Review of EWG’s 2017 Sunscreen Guide

Since it is the beginning of summer and we are all eager to shed our winter clothes and spend some time in the sun, I decided it would be a good time to talk about sun protection. Or more specifically, the chemicals in many sunscreens that are toxic to our bodies and our beautiful oceans. The good news is that the market for safer sunscreens is growing and there are now many effective alternatives to toxic products.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released its 11th annual sunscreen guide, which you can find here: The highlights of this report are:

  • Sunscreens give false sense of security about risk of skin cancer and don’t block our skin from UV rays fully.
    • UVA rays penetrate deeper and produce free radicals, linked to skin cancer. Many sunscreens, especially those in the US, are not very effective at blocking UVA.
  • SPF is not a good rating system and exaggerates effectiveness of sunscreen.
    • Many consumers buy high SPF sunscreens thinking it affords them better sun protection. The value of SPF is not linear and effectiveness varies greatly depending on sun intensity, amount used, and reapplication. If used correctly, SPF 50 will protect you from 98% of UVB rays, while SPF 100 shields 99% of UVB rays. After about SPF 50, the difference in sun protection is pretty negligible.
  • Vitamin A can increase risk of skin cancer.
    • Studies have shown accelerated skin tumor growth in connection with some forms of Vitamin A, a common ingredient in sunscreens.
  • Mineral sunscreens, using Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide are the recommended alternatives, even if they use nanoparticles.
    • There has been great concern over the health impacts of nanoparticles, but according to EWG, there is little evidence that consumers need to worry about skin absorption. Compared to the health risks of chemical ingredients, mineral sunscreens are still the safer option.

Most sunscreen ingredients (chemical UV filters) have not been tested for health impacts and have been in use since the 1970s. This is connected to the deeper issue of the personal care industry having virtually no regulation by the government, which I will address in one of my next blog posts.

EWG lists oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate as the most common chemical UV filters. You can read more in-depth about this part of the report in the section Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals. The most worrisome ingredient is Oxybenzone, which is a skin allergen and possible hormone disrupting chemical. The EWG also points to the preservative methylisothiazolinone, common in sunscreens, for causing skin sensitivities and allergies.

Additionally, many of the non-active ingredients in sunscreen can be harmful to your health. Like many other personal care products, sunscreens often contain “inactive” petrochemical ingredients. These include preservatives, fragrances, and skin penetration enhancers.

Aside from the health concerns, most commercial sunscreens have a huge impact on marine life. According to an article (Sunscreen Pollution) published last year by the NGO MarineSafe, Oxybenzone damages coral, algae, fish, and other animals in the ocean – it instigates coral bleaching and disrupts normal hormone function in animals. Many other ingredients in sunscreens, and personal care products more broadly, have profound ecological damage as well. This article also notes that some natural ingredients found in skin care products are toxic to marine life, which indicates we have further work to do in the area of finding ingredients that are safe to us and our wildlife counterparts.

Mineral sunscreens, which are free of chemical UV filters and other toxic chemicals, are highly recommended by the EWG. You can find a list of sunscreens that meet EWG’s criteria here: Some brands offer reef safe or eco-friendly sunscreens; unfortunately there is no official certification system for evaluating marine safe sunscreens.

My sunscreen brand of choice right now is Caribbean Sol, which EWG gives a rating of one (lower is better). I like this brand because they also tout the eco-friendly side of the product, not just human safety. I’ve found their water resistant 30 SPF sunscreen to work very well after a week of snorkeling in Hawaii. However, as EWG points out in their report, the effectiveness of a sunscreen does depend on how thick a coat is applied and how often you apply it. This is another reason to choose a toxic-free sunscreen – you’re supposed to slather that stuff on your skin in a pretty thick layer. The more you put on, the more you increase your exposure to toxic chemicals, and the health risks of those ingredients starts to outweigh the benefit of the product’s sun protection.

I find the information from MarineSafe’s article on sunscreen pollution quite unsettling – I was unaware that certain “natural” ingredients could also be toxic to marine life. I’m going to dig through the sunscreen list from EWG and do a little investigative work to determine which products are actually marine-safe and human safe. I will report my findings in a follow-up post next week.

Wellness Mama, another reducing-toxic-chemicals blog has a good article about toxic chemicals in sunscreens and offers a DIY recipe: