Ah, those glorious days of summer and hitting the beach, the pool, the trail. Time to catch some rays!
But with skin cancer rates rising - more than 76,000 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed in the United States this year, predicts the Skin Cancer Foundation - protection from the sun is growing ever more important.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group, a national nonprofit that focuses on potentially harmful chemicals, evaluates the plethora of sunscreens on the market. For the recently released 2016 report, EWG scientists evaluated 750 sunscreens, focusing on products aimed specifically at babies and young children.
They concluded that three-fourths of the products offered inferior protection or contained worrisome ingredients. Or both. We're listing the 22 best-scoring products, but you can find them all at EWG's website.
We spoke recently with Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst and one of the report's authors. (See the full report and an interactive guide at: www.ewg.org/sunscreen.)
Why did the EWG focus on children's products this year?
There's a proliferation of these products. We wanted to see whether there was something really different about them. So we looked at all products that had the words little or kids or babies in the title.
One thing that was interesting was that we didn't find a particular difference that was widespread for children's vs. adults' products. Sometimes, the label might say "pure and gentle," which would be more of a mineral-type product, which is good. But in general, there are no rules about what makes a baby product, and there's not an across-the-board difference. So if you have different age groups in your family, it seems you can use one product.
Another reason we looked at children's products: It does appear that overexposure in childhood increases a person's risk of developing melanoma. It's not totally clear why, but it is a reason to pay more attention to covering children up and avoiding sunburn.
What qualities do the top-rated products share?
Our top-rated products generally use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as UV filters. These are minerals that offer good protection from the UVA spectrum, which is hard to achieve currently with U.S. sunscreens. There are very few ingredients that have been approved.
They don't have SPF values above 50. We think those big numbers are misleading. They are lotions and sticks, but not sprays, which can be inhaled. They are free of oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, two ingredients we are concerned about. Oxybenzone is a hormone disrupter. Retinyl palmitate is a form of Vitamin A, and there is concern that it breaks down in UV light to form an ingredient that damages the skin.
And the others?
This year, we also pulled the worst-scoring sunscreens for kids. We found that there are a bunch that have many, if not all, of our safety concerns in one product. They had the combination of high SPF, aerosol spray, and oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has set some rules governing sunscreens. (For instance, no longer can labels use the words sunblock or waterproof.) It has proposed some rules it has not finalized, and it has not addressed other concerns.
For such things as high SPF, FDA has proposed a rule to cap values at 50, but it hasn't finalized the rule. FDA has not reviewed active ingredients like oxybenzone and other UV filters for their effects, including toxicity effects on human skin.
The sprays are interesting. FDA has asked the companies to prove that their products are both safe and effective. That was in 2011. We haven't had any updates since then. We have two concerns. One is the potential for inhalation. There's a lot of alcohol in those sprays that volatilizes, and you could wind up inhaling sunscreen ingredients. The second issue is effectiveness. Sprays in those very light formulations coat your skin with a thin layer, not the thick layer that is necessary for protection. Also, people tend to miss spots.
Let's talk more about broad spectrum protection. Do today's sunscreens provide it?
We're concerned. It's a big shortcoming in U.S. products. Almost every product says it provides broad spectrum protection. The label says, "Use this and it will prevent skin cancer."
But the U.S. has weak standards when it comes to defining a broad spectrum sunscreen. Most if not every single product on the market passes the test and can be called broad spectrum. Our analysis shows that about half these sunscreens wouldn't meet standards in Europe, where they require more protection from UVA.
This is a challenge. People rely on sunscreen for protection, but they don't understand the limitations. Perhaps that is one reason skin cancer rates are going up.
If sunscreens fall short, how can you best protect yourself and your kids?
Studies show that people who cover up - who wear protective clothing or stay out of the sun during bright parts of the day - don't get sunburned as often as people who say they depend on sunscreen. And that's the concern, those intermittent bad sunburns.
When you do use sunscreen, apply a thick coat every time you get out of the water, every two hours at a minimum.
Most people don't reapply sunscreen often enough. Part of this, I think, can be pinned on the marketing of sunscreen products with high SPF - up to 100. When someone holds an SPF 100 in their hand, they assume that product will fully protect them. Indeed it will not, unless they use it properly. An SPF of 30 to 50 should be enough, even for people with fair skin.
There's this complicated relationship between the sun and skin cancer and sunscreen. We don't want people to be afraid of being outside and limit their time outside. But you want to avoid sunburn. Sunscreen is helpful, but it's not the only tool. We really have to change the way people understand the effectiveness and limitations of sunscreen.