Surprising facts about sunscreen

This article was originally published in June 2014


Do you depend on sunscreen for skin protection? Millions of Americans do, but they shouldn’t. Melanoma rates are increasing. The consensus among scientists is that sunscreens alone cannot reverse this trend. Yet a good sunscreen can play a role in preventing sunburns that are a major risk factor for melanoma – provided you use it correctly.

Some sunscreen ingredients disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies.

The ideal sunscreen would completely block UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression and damaging free radicals. It would remain effective on the skin for several hours. It would not form harmful ingredients when degraded by sunlight. It would smell and feel pleasant so people would use more of it.

No sunscreen meets these goals. Americans must choose between “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin, and may disrupt the body’s hormone system, and “mineral” sunscreens, made with zinc and titanium, often “micronized” or containing nano-particles.

PCC sunscreen standards mean all our sunscreens are free of harmful chemical ingredients. We do carry sunscreens with the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are natural minerals from clay and beach sand deposits. They reflect and scatter away both UVA and UVB rays from your body.

Mineral sunscreens contain nano-particles.

Most zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens contain nano-particles a 20th the width of a human hair. These help reduce or eliminate the chalky white tint that these minerals once left on the skin. Based on the available information, Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives a favorable rating to mineral sunscreens, but says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should restrict the use of unstable or UV-reactive forms of minerals that lessen skin protection.
FDA’s sunscreen rules have changed but products haven’t improved.

An EWG review of sunscreens finds many sunscreens available on the U.S. market do not filter skin-damaging rays safely and effectively.
There’s no proof that sunscreens prevent most skin cancer.

Rates of melanoma ­—­­­ the most deadly form of skin cancer — have tripled over the past 35 years. Most scientists and public health agencies — including FDA itself — have found very little evidence that sunscreen prevents most types of skin cancer. 

Don’t be fooled by high SPF.

High-SPF products tempt people to apply too little sunscreen and stay in the sun too long. The FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50+, calling higher SPF values “inherently misleading,” but it has not issued a regulation that carries the force of law.

The common sunscreen additive vitamin A may speed development of skin cancer.

The sunscreen industry adds a form of vitamin A to nearly one-quarter of all sunscreens. Retinyl palmitate is an antioxidant that slows skin aging. But federal studies indicate it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight.

EWG recommends that consumers avoid sunscreens, lip products and skin lotions containing vitamin A, often labeled “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol.”

Sunscreen does not protect skin from all types of sun damage.

The sun’s ultraviolet radiation generates free radicals that damage DNA and skin cells, accelerate skin aging and may cause skin cancer. American sunscreens can reduce these damages, but not as effectively as they prevent sunburn. Consumers can run into problems if they pick a sunscreen with poor UVA protection, apply too little or reapply it infrequently.

The FDA should strengthen its regulations to ensure that sunscreens offer better protection from skin damage. 

See EWG’s sunscreen guide at

Copyright © Environmental Working Group, Adapted with permission.

article updated March 23, 2015

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