Your sunscreen could be dangerous or Ineffective — but it doesn't have to be

by Leah Groth ; Updated May 25, 2018

Two-thirds of sunscreens offer inferior sun protection or contain the worrisome ingredients oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), two-thirds of sunscreens offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.

Do you know what’s in your sunscreen or if it even works? According to new research, it’s very likely the answer to both questions is no. Every year the EWG investigates approximately 650 beach and sport sunscreens for the Annual EWG Sunscreen Guide in an effort to get the FDA to stiffen regulations on sun-protection products. While they have been successful in getting rid of potentially dangerous sunscreens in the past 11 years, this year’s examination yielded some pretty shocking statistics.

The majority of products — a staggering two-thirds — either fail to provide proper sun protection or contain one of two dangerous ingredients, according to the group. The first is oxybenzone, which is found in two-thirds of nonmineral sunscreens tested. Why is it so bad? The EWG explains it is hazardous to both human health and the environment because not only is it an allergen, meaning it can provoke an allergic reaction for some people, but it can be also be a hormone disruptor.

And then there’s the impact it has on marine life. Basically, when people lather up in the chemical and then take a swim in the ocean, it ends up bleaching coral and even killing it.

The other troubling ingredient is retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A. According to data from an FDA study, when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight it could speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions. Not exactly what you want to be applying to your skin with the intention of soaking up rays!

Before you start throwing away your sunscreens that didn’t make the cut, keep in mind that not everyone is concerned about the potential dangers of the two ingredients for humans, so ask your dermatologist for more information. David L. Cangello, M.D., FACS, explains to LIVESTRONG.COM that while oxybenzone isn’t good for coral, we don’t even know for sure that it is dangerous for humans, and the same goes for retinyl palmitate. “The bottom line is that we certainly can not say definitively that there is reason for concern with its use in sunscreen,” he says.

So which sunscreens does EWG recommend using this summer? It’s guide identifies 211 top-rated mineral sunscreens — and just 23 nonmineral ones — that are oxybenzone-free as well as effective. So to play it safe, David L. Cangello, M.D., FACS, also recommends sticking with mineral sunscreens, such as zinc. Unlike chemical sunscreens, which absorb into your skin, allowing UV rays to enter into your skin and shoot them back out as infrared rays, mineral sunscreen forms a protective layer on your skin, simply reflecting the UV rays from ever getting in.

“They are not absorbed into the skin like other chemicals, such as oxybenzone, and they reflect the sun,” Dr. Cangello says. The drawback? “They go on and are white and heavier because they are not absorbed.” Regardless of which type of sunscreen you choose, make sure they have good UVA and UVB protection.

Need more help picking a good sunscreen? Here are the 31 Safest Sunscreens and 3 to Avoid!

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What Do You Think?

Are you surprised that so many sunscreens contain potentially harmful ingredients or are ineffective? How do you choose sunscreen? Will this new information encourage you to be more selective about what you use on your skin? Tell us in the comments!

About the Author

Leah Groth is a writer and editor currently based in Philadelphia. She has covered topics such as entertainment, parenting, health & wellness for xoJane, Babble, Radar, Fit Pregnancy, Mommy Nearest, Living Healthy and PopDust.