Skip to content

Keep your skin safe with the EWG’s 2020 Sunscreen Guide

This year's guide emphasizes the dangers of oxybenzone, a common chemical ingredient with a harmful track record.

The Environmental Working Group's 14th annual guide to sunscreens was published today, just in time for the hot summer weather that has finally arrived. In order to create this latest version of the guide, researchers assessed 1,300 sunscreens and SPF products (including moisturizers and lip balms). They found that only 25 percent “offer adequate protection and do not contain worrisome ingredients such as oxybenzone, a potentially hormone-disrupting chemical that is readily absorbed by the body.”

Oxybenzone is a major topic in the report. It is a commonly used chemical active ingredient found in many sunscreens. With just a single application, it gets absorbed into the skin immediately and traces can be found in the body for up to three weeks following application. The report lists an additional five chemical ingredients that follow similar patterns, but oxybenzone appears with the highest levels in the blood stream, far exceeding the threshold that the FDA has set for safe exposure.

Oxybenzone is known to be allergenic and an endocrine disruptor, and has been found in breast milk, amniotic fluid, and blood. It is has also been linked to birth defects. It is absorbed through the skin in large amounts and children may be more vulnerable to harm from oxybenzone than adults “because of the potential for higher absorption and bioaccumulation.”

The EWG is frustrated that oxybenzone, as well as numerous other common chemical ingredients, have not been tested adequately, despite appearing in roughly 50 percent of available sunscreens, and that regulations enforcing testing have not come into effect. From the guide's executive summary:

“The FDA first began working to update sunscreen regulations more than 40 years ago. In February 2019, the agency at long last issued a proposed set of final rules, but they were never adopted. As written, the new rules would bring significant advances in both effectiveness and safety. Now the law requiring the FDA to finalize sunscreen rules has been rewritten, and new regulations will likely not come for at least two more years.”

The following graphic shows what the agency proposed in 2019 to make sunscreens better, and what it would likely propose again.

EWG 2020 sunscreen infographic© Environmental Working Group (used with permission)

The report goes on to say that people are far too fixated on SPF values, assuming that higher numbers offer better protection from the sun. The FDA says that higher SPF values “have not been shown to provide additional clinical benefit and may provide users with a false sense of security.” In its new recommended rules, the FDA would like an SPF limit of 60 on all sunscreen products, but the EWG would prefer it to be 50.

Both the FDA and EWG would like to see changes to the broad spectrum test that measures protection from UVA rays. Currently, European standards are much higher, requiring that UVA protection rise in proportion to SPF, and though the FDA's proposed changes would bring American products closer to that standard (and force 25 percent of current products to reformulate), the EWG would like it to exceed the EU rules.

It's important to note that, even if you're observing stay-at-home rules these days, you might be sitting near windows where UVA and UVB rays can pass. So wearing sunscreen indoors can still make a difference in preventing a burn.

Finally, the 2020 report emphasizes the problem with sunscreen sprays and powders. These do not provide adequate coverage and they contain inhalants that are considered harmful to human health, as they can get lodged deeply inside the lungs. It's yet another example of how convenience comes with environmental and health costs that are simply not worth it.

So, looking ahead at 2020's sunny season, here are some takeaways from the report:

– When choosing a sunscreen, always look for two ingredients that are generally recognized as safe, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These offer a physical sunblock, rather than a chemical one, and are safer for health.

– Avoid sunscreen sprays and powders and all products with an SPF greater than 50. (Sticks are not recommended either, as their coverage tends to be too thin.)

– Use other methods for sun protection in addition to sunscreen, such as avoiding peak sun hours (10 a.m. till 4 p.m.), wearing clothing to cover skin, seeking shade, and avoiding burns.

– Read the EWG's lists of top recommended sunscreens for beach and sport sunscreens and for babies and children. All of these earned a 1 or “green” rating for ingredient hazards and UV protection.

This year's guide emphasizes the dangers of oxybenzone, a common chemical ingredient with a harmful track record.