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Most people would agree that sunscreen is a necessity for preventing skin cancer and premature aging. What everyone does not agree about, though, is which type of sunscreen is best and whether certain ingredients are dangerous.
If you’ve been reading the news over the last two weeks, it’s clear that this argument is very much still raging. Both Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) just released their annual sunscreen ratings, and the results are confusing if you’re trying to figure out the absolute best sunscreen to buy because they recommend two opposite things. I studied all the reports and spoke to representatives from the groups to break it all down.
What Consumer Reports says
Consumer Reports puts sunscreen on testers’ backs, soaks them in a tub of water, shoots varying levels of UV light at them, then inspects for redness the next day. Based on the results, it then assigns the product a score and color rating.
The big takeaway here was that some mineral sunscreens got pretty dismal ratings on actual SPF protection. (Mineral sunscreens contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide and are often classified as “natural.” So-called “chemical” sunscreens — a misnomer, because zinc and titanium are chemicals, too — usually contain some combination of avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone.)
A representative told me that’s been consistent in Consumer Reports’ testing for the last four years. The bottom five with the worst-tested SPF values versus labeled SPF were all mineral sunscreens. (If you want to see a complete list, it’s behind a paywall, but I’ll talk about some of them below.)
What the EWG says
The EWG is a divisive organization that many scientists feel uses fear-mongering tactics (the Skin Cancer Foundation called its sunscreen claims “dangerous”) without any concrete evidence. It preaches a “better safe than sorry” mantra, demonizes “chemicals,” and generally scares everyone silly.
The EWG uses a number-crunching model to assign its ratings based on the stated SPF of the product and a product’s “health hazard.” So determining whether or not a sunscreen provides good protection isn’t necessarily the only goal here. Perhaps not surprisingly, many mineral sunscreens got stellar ratings while a lot of chemical sunscreens received poor ratings because the EWG believes that some chemical sunscreen ingredients are bad.
The biggest controversy
So, is sunscreen going to kill you? The EWG has a particular beef with oxybenzone, an ingredient in most chemical sunscreens that it claims can cause hormone disruption, primarily because of a rat study involving feeding the animals large doses. (Read this dermatologist’s great explanation about why this is total BS, complete with supportive studies.)
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Skin Cancer Foundation both agree that, based on evidence and at the dose used in sunscreens, oxybenzone is safe for humans. The FDA states: “[We] believe the risk of not using sunscreen is much greater than any potential risk posed by sunscreen ingredients.” Even a representative for the EWG acknowledges that the evidence against oxybenzone is not solid, despite the terrifying messaging in its sunscreen report.
“It has hormone disruption qualities in lab studies, and hormone disruption is a challenging type of endpoint, in that there’s not an agreed-upon amount that is harmful,” Sonya Lunder, an EWG senior analyst, said to me on a call. “It depends on your age and your vulnerability and a lot of different outcomes. It’s a little bit hard to also say, you know, does this cross the line? This seems like an ingredient that we’d want people to avoid, but is it really possible to put a body count behind it? At this point, we don’t feel like we have enough evidence.” (Oxybenzone can cause allergic reactions, however, as can any number of cosmetic ingredients.)
So, what were the results?
What dermatologists agree on is that the best sunscreen is the one that you are willing to wear and reapply. If you hate how something feels, you won’t put enough on and it won’t work. The Consumer Reports review is only one data point and can’t obviously make a statement on all sunscreens. Just because some mineral sunscreens tested poorly doesn’t mean that they all will, especially if you’re vigilant about how much and how often you apply.
Consumer Reports’ best-performing sunscreen is La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk ($35.99). If that price tag horrifies you, the second best was Walmart’s house brand, Equate Sport Lotion SPF 50 ($4.98).
The bottom spot was claimed by Babyganics Mineral Based Lotion SPF 50+, and The Honest Company’s Mineral Lotion SPF 50 ($9.95) was very low on the list. (Recall that the Honest Company got into some trouble when people were getting burned after using its sunscreen.)
Not surprisingly, the Venn diagram of sunscreens that Consumer Reports and the EWG both like are just two separate circles. The same Honest Company sunscreen got the EWG’s best score, a green “1.” It gives the La Roche-Posay product a “7,” which means “Overall this product scores poorly and is a bad choice for sun protection.” It’s honestly enough to make you want to just stay inside all summer.
Things that everybody agrees on
Use at least SPF 30. A sun protection factor, or SPF, of 30 theoretically means that you can stay out in the sun for 30 times longer than you would without sunscreen on without burning. Except that’s not really true. Most people don’t apply nearly enough sunscreen, they sweat or rub it off, and, as Consumer Reports has shown year after year, not every SPF on a bottle is accurate.
The AAD recommends using a minimum SPF 30. It states: “A high-number SPF does not allow you to spend additional time outdoors without reapplication. All sunscreens should be applied approximately every two hours or according to time on the label.”
A product over SPF 50 is unnecessary. According to the (pre-Trump) EPA, you get diminishing SPF returns above 30. An SPF 30 blocks about 97 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. The FDA recommends, though it isn’t a law, that manufacturers not list an SPF over 50 on their products. So don’t spend more money for SPF 100.
Use a water-resistant product. Swimming and sweat will make your sunscreen wear off quickly. The FDA no longer allows companies to claim a product is waterproof. Companies are also required to print a time after which you need to reapply if you’ve been wet, usually 80 minutes.
Use a broad spectrum product. SPF only measures UVB rays, but scientists have learned a lot about how UVA rays adversely affect skin and can contribute to certain types of cancers. So you need a product that blocks both types of rays, one that is “broad spectrum.” If this isn’t listed clearly on the label, it isn’t one.
It’s not enough just to wear sunscreen. It’s not a perfect product. The AAD recommends protective clothing and staying indoors during peak sunny times.
The FDA doesn’t approve new sunscreen ingredients quickly enough. Europe and Australia are way ahead of us here. Obama signed the bipartisan Sunscreen Innovation Act into law in 2014, which was meant to nudge the FDA to fast-track new sunscreen ingredients. It didn’t work — the FDA has since rejected eight applications for new ingredients.
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Correction: June 1, 2017
A previous version of this story listed Tom’s of Maine as the lowest rated Consumer Reports sunscreen and the Honest Company as second lowest. It has been updated to reflect that Babyganics was the lowest rated mineral sunscreen.
Updated: June 30, 2017
A link to the ACSH has been removed and replaced with a link to the Skin Cancer Foundation.