Choosing a safe sunscreen

By Rebecca Robinson

Sunblock and sunglasses on a beach

More people use sunscreen products today than ever before. However, U.S. consumers still face significant confusion about which products are safe and what protections they offer, while major changes in sunscreen regulations are also on the horizon. With coronavirus shutdowns supercharging the usual Seattle longing for sun and outdoor activity, here’s an advance look to explain PCC’s sunscreen standards, provide historical perspective, and help inform your own choices about which products to use.

History and regulations

Sunscreen was first developed in the U.S. to protect soldiers from sunburn during World War II. Regulations governing its use were non-existent until the late 1970s, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established rules for labeling and for Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ratings. (SPF measures how effectively products protect the skin from damage caused by one type of ultraviolet rays, known as UVB.)

Sunscreens are considered over the counter (OTC) drugs, meaning that the FDA sets requirements for labeling, claims, product effectiveness and acceptable active ingredients. In recent years, the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in approving new ingredients for sunscreens; the 2014 federal Sunscreen Innovation Act (SIA) set a process in place to modernize our regulations.

As part of that process, the FDA is considering new ingredient guidelines and marketing and labeling changes. As part of one proposal, consumers would no longer see sunscreens with SPF ratings above 60. The agency has proposed capping ratings at that number because higher SPF ratings offer very little additional protection while contributing to overconfidence among consumers about how long they can safely stay in the sun. The FDA also proposed additional safety studies for any spray or powder sunscreens, given concerns that they can increase the risk of lung damage, among other health concerns under review. The agency is also proposing requiring greater UVA protection for any products labeled SPF 15 or more.

PCC standards are already far stricter than FDA requirements (see below for more details), and our stores already do not carry products advertising greater than 50 SPF.

Beyond those changes, the FDA has also proposed revaluating which ingredients are considered safe in sunscreen, leaving zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the only two ingredients considered GRASE (Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective). Companies would be barred from using two other ingredients currently in wide use, PABA and trolamine salicylate, because studies have shown these chemicals can cause skin damage, photosensitivity, and potentially long-term endocrine system damage. The FDA would allow all remaining currently used ingredients to remain in sunscreens but would request additional data and studies to decide later whether they can be considered safe and effective. If the industry cannot provide convincing evidence on those ingredients, manufacturers would eventually be required to further reformulate their products. Further complicating the issue, updated requirements were included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which may additionally delay or change these proposals.

Skin cancer and misinformation

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is a major cause of skin cancer, and skin cancer is by far the most common of all cancers in the U.S. The rates of melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, have actually tripled over the past 35 years (despite the invention and usage of sunscreens) and continue to climb at an annual rate of about 2.6%.

One theory behind these trends is an excessive focus on sunscreen alone for skin protection, along with misconceptions about proper use and exaggerations about its benefits, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

While some sunscreen manufacturers label their products as protecting against “skin cancer,” there are different types of skin cancers and experts don’t believe sunscreen provides equal protection against each one. Even when using sunscreen, experts such as the CDC recommend taking additional precautions against skin cancers, such as covering exposed skin or avoiding excessive sun exposure (see “Sun Safety” on the CDC website).

Sunscreen’s ability to protect against ultraviolet rays is also frequently misunderstood. SPF measures the effectiveness of a product at protecting the skin from damage caused by shortwave UVB rays. However, UVB rays are only a fraction of the UV light that reaches the earth and can damage skin. The majority of these rays are UVA rays that remain constant in strength throughout the day and penetrate deeper into skin, contributing to long-term damage and increasing the risk of developing melanoma. Many sunscreens do not provide adequate protection against UVA rays.

Mineral sunscreens that use zinc oxide or a combination of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide the most protection against UVB, UVA and UVC radiation. As mineral sunscreens have improved, formulators have identified zinc oxide as the most effective option. As a result, it is rare to find a product that contains only titanium dioxide as the active ingredient.

Beyond these considerations, a companion rating system used on some U.S. products lists sunscreen’s ability to protect against long-wave rays, using a scale of PA+ to PA++++.

PCC offers the safest sunscreens

PCC carries many sunscreens that have been carefully selected to be safe and effective. You’ll find mineral sunscreens on our shelves that range from SPF 15 to SPF 50 and meet our strict ingredient standards. We also follow the recommendations found in the Environmental Working Group’s annual sunscreen guide ( For example, PCC does not carry any sunscreen products with Vitamin A, which experts say can do more harm than good when added to sunscreen (see “What Scientists Say About Vitamin A in Sunscreen”). We source products that have few or no ingredients derived from petroleum. We also work hard to stay abreast of changing best practices and regulations associated with sunscreens.

Probably the biggest change you’ll see on PCC shelves this year is that we no longer carry spray sunscreen, due to new research about potential health risks. Current evidence suggests the particles in spray sunscreens become aerosolized and easily inhaled. Some research indicates that if those particles penetrate deeply, they could potentially cause damage to lung tissue. There may be other potential health effects of spray sunscreen as well. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists titanium dioxide as a possible human carcinogen when inhaled. (When applied topically in a lotion, it is considered safe.) Beyond that, additional research indicates that spray sunscreens are not as effective as ones applied topically in the form of a cream or lotion.


Sunscreens and nanoparticles

Mineral-based sunscreen, more appropriately called sunblock, contains substances that are physical barriers to shield your skin. Non-mineral sunscreens contain chemicals designed to screen out UV radiation by absorbing it before it reaches the skin. Minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide refract and scatter UV light rays, thus preventing UV radiation from damaging the skin underneath.

As mineral sunscreens gained popularity, concern arose that companies were using mineral particles so small they could enter the bloodstream and cause health problems. The Environmental Working Group says that, while more study on nanoparticles is needed, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide lotions are still the best option on the U.S. market as “a large number of studies have produced no evidence that zinc oxide nanoparticles can cross the skin in significant amounts” or cause harm when applied topically. While many consumers still worry about nanoparticles, for cosmetic reasons they also resist using sunscreens that contain larger minerals, which leave an opaque white coating on the skin.

Sunscreen innovator Badger, whose products are available at PCC, has addressed these concerns by creating a clear zinc oxide sunscreen, aggregating nanoparticles of zinc oxide into larger clusters. The product has the effectiveness of non-nano minerals, but because it doesn’t reflect as much visible light, it appears clear on the skin. To learn more about nanoparticles and sunscreens, visit Badger’s webpage on zinc sunscreens (

Sunscreens and coral reefs

Every year, approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion pollutes our world’s oceans with oxybenzone and other toxic chemicals. (PCC does not carry sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone.) While some sunscreens carry a “reef-safe” label, Consumer Reports warns against relying on that assurance, saying “the term ‘reef safe’ doesn’t have an agreed-upon definition, and therefore isn’t strictly regulated by government.” The agency also notes that “mineral sunscreens with ‘non-nanotized’ zinc oxide or titanium dioxide…appear to be safer for coral reefs than chemical ones, according to the National Park Service.”

For more information see Oxybenzone in Suncreens: A Coral Killer.


Rebecca Robinson, M.A., is PCC’s product sustainability specialist.

Related Reading