Is Your Sunscreen Dangerous?


by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

As we’re all diligently slathering on sunscreen to prevent cancer, out comes a new report suggesting that ingredients in many brands — including the most popular ones — may actually raise cancer risk, and that’s not the only health problem associated with them. It isn’t just a single common ingredient that new research has raised some concerns about — it’s far worse than that. Many widely available sunscreens contain potentially dangerous ingredients… provide inadequate protection… and are portrayed by their marketers as far more helpful than they actually are. The list of offenders includes leading brands that you know and trust and even some products designed just for babies.

When the Environmental Working Group ( issued its 2010 guide to the best and worst sunscreens, the nonprofit watchdog gave its OK to just 39 products — which amounts to a mere 8% of the 500 sunscreens evaluated! When I saw this newest report, I immediately placed a call to EWG research analyst Nneka Leiba, MPH, to find out what’s going on and to see what she thinks we all should know about our sunscreens.

According to Leiba, the FDA bears some serious responsibility for this problem — she said that the agency has had no mandatory regulations for sunscreens or their ingredients. (Regulations may be in place by October 2010, according to the most recent official estimate.) Companies have not been required to verify that sunscreens work… to test that their sun protection factor (SPF) levels are accurate… or to show that other claims, such as whether they are waterproof or protect against UVA rays, hold up.

We went one by one through the various health hazards we need to know about…

Danger: Cancer-Causing Ingredients

Leiba told me that nearly half the sunscreens examined by EWG contained one or two cancer-causing ingredients. One is a hormone-disrupting chemical that penetrates the skin, disrupting the normal functioning of the body in ways that can lead to cancer and other serious medical problems… and the other is a vitamin A derivative that when exposed to sunlight — sunlight! — may encourage skin cancer.

What not to buy: Avoid sunscreens with these dangerous ingredients…

  • Oxybenzone. A hormone-disrupting chemical linked with endocrine disruption and cell damage (and low birth weight when used by pregnant women). Oxybenzone can penetrate the skin and enter your bloodstream and is an ingredient in about half of sunscreens.
  • Retinyl palmitate. A vitamin A compound associated with the accelerated growth of skin lesions and tumors. Manufacturers put vitamin A derivatives in sunscreens because they are popular antioxidants that slow signs of aging, such as wrinkles and rough skin. But FDA data suggest that vitamin A has photo-carcinogenic properties, which means that when exposed to the sun, it may speed up cancer formation. EWG found retinyl palmitate in 41% of sunscreens.

Danger: No UVA Protection

Many sunscreens offer protection only from UVB rays — the type of ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn — while it is known that UVA rays are also destructive and can cause skin cancer… in addition to all those other unattractive things the sun can do to our skin over time.

What to buy: EWG recommends purchasing broad-spectrum sunscreens that derive their protective properties not from chemicals that penetrate the skin, but from the metals titanium or zinc, which stay on the surface of the skin, do their job to protect you and then can be washed off entirely.

Danger: Accidental Inhalation

Sunscreens are meant for external use only, but when you use them in the increasingly popular spray or powder forms, you are in danger of inhaling them. While inhaled particles of any size can pose a health risk, tiny nanoparticles — ultra-tiny particles used in many of these formulations — can more easily penetrate linings and tissues in your body and cause inflammation.

Advice: EWG suggests using sunscreens only in cream or lotion form and says not to apply any type of sunscreen to broken skin.

Danger: You’ll Get Burned

The high SPF levels touted on many sunscreen labels are a growing concern at EWG. The organization says that these claims are misleading because the products may not provide more protection than sunscreens labeled with lower SPFs — and people may therefore be misled into thinking that the higher number means that they can spend more time in the sun. It’s not widely understood that SPF applies to only one type of cancer-causing ultraviolet ray — UVB. It tells you nothing about a product’s ability to filter UVA rays. That’s a false sense of security, warns Leiba. People end up staying out in the sun longer than they can safely tolerate.

What to do: Apply safe sunscreen in lavish amounts. Studies show that most consumers use only one-quarter to two-thirds of the amount needed to reach a product’s SPF rating. Sunscreen should be applied generously (about an ounce or palmful to cover all exposed skin)… early (30 minutes before sun exposure) to allow its protective capabilities to work… and often, typically every two hours (more often when swimming or exercising enough to make you sweat). There’s no consensus on an optimal SPF: The American Cancer Society recommends that you use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15… while the American Academy of Dermatology says 30… and the FDA says that any SPF rating above 50 is “inherently misleading.”


Beware of sunscreens with SPF ratings higher than 50, especially when combined with “baby” on the label. The implication is that they are safe as can be, but the reality is that many offer little or no UVA protection and some also contain dangerous ingredients. The EWG’s “Hall of Shame” indicts…

  • Banana Boat Baby Max Protect, SPF 100: No UVA protection — and it contains oxybenzone and vitamin A.
  • Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection, SPF 55: Label says “mild as water,” but warns “keep out of reach of children and seek medical help from poison control center if ingested.” Also contains oxybenzone.
  • Banana Boat Ultra Defense Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50: Misleading advertising says “it doesn’t break down,” which might lead consumers to think it will last all day.
  • Hawaiian Tropic Baby Crème Lotion, SPF 50: Does not have the advanced UVA protection advertised on the label, and also contains oxybenzone and vitamin A.

See a full list of EWG’s lowest-rated sunscreens at


 All 39 of EWG’s top-rated sunscreens contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Top recommendations include…

  • All Terrain Aquasport Performance Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • Badger Sunscreen for Face and Body, SPF 30
  • Loving Naturals Sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Purple Prairie Botanicals Sun Stick, SPF 30
  • Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+

See a full list at

 I wouldn’t be doing my job, however, if I failed to point out that even these EWG-approved products aren’t perfect, as they contain nanoparticles.

 Leiba says her organization has deemed them not dangerous… but not everyone agrees: see Daily Health News, June 16, 2009, “Bad Nanoparticles in Good-for-You Supplements,” for our review of safety concerns with products manufactured with nanoparticles.


Nneka Leiba, MPH, research analyst, Environmental Working Group (, Washington, DC.