School may be out for summer, but the current class of sunscreens should probably head back for some remedial instruction. Only 39 of 500 sunscreens on the market—that’s a dismal 8%—made the grade for safety, according to the Environmental Working Group. On top of exaggerated SPF claims (greater than 50), most sunscreens could also contain potentially hazardous ingredients, including a form of vitamin A that is linked to accelerated growth of skin tumors and lesions.

Children, beach, sunscreen, sunblock


An underachieving skincare industry and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s lack of oversight are primarily to blame, notes the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization. Although sunscreen has its place, hats, clothing, and sticking to the shade are still the most reliable sun protection.

Products with sky-high SPF ratings give people a false sense of security, which makes us stay out longer and risk getting burned anyway, says EWG. More important, they offer scant protection against UVA radiation, the type of sunlight that doesn’t burn but is associated with skin damage and cancer.

Plus, most folks apply only a quarter of the recommended amount, which means that you may be getting the equivalent of SPF 3.2 protection out of your SPF 100 squeeze-tube.

Children, beach, sunscreen, sunblock


Then there are the chemical nasties that permeate many sunscreen products—and by extension, get absorbed into our bodies. The FDA is investigating whether a vitamin A compound known as retinyl palmitate, found in 41% of sunscreens, could accelerate skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer when applied to skin and then exposed to sunlight.

Oxybenzone is another ingredient to steer clear of, says EWG. A hormone-disruptor, oxybenzone penetrates the skin and slips into the bloodstream. In fact, surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have detected oxybenzone in 97 percent of Americans tested.

Women, beach, sunscreen, sunblock


“Many sunscreens available in the U.S. may be the equivalent of modern-day snake oil, plying customers with claims of broad-spectrum protection but not providing it, while exposing people to potentially hazardous chemicals that can penetrate the skin into the body,” says Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research. “When only 8% of sunscreens rate high for safety and efficacy, it’s clear that consumers concerned about protecting themselves and their families are left with few good options.”

Houlihan calls sunscreen regulation the “poster child of inaction,” since the FDA has failed to update its guidelines since 1978. If the FDA sticks to its plan of issuing new regulations next October, the EWG still expects it to give manufacturers at least a year to reformulate their products. In that case, the first federally regulated sunscreens will be available on store shelves no earlier than the summer of 2012.

“Both world wars, the creation of Medicare, and the planning and execution of the moon landing combined took less time to achieve than FDA’s promised sunscreen regulations,” says Houlihan.

+ 2010 Sunscreen Guide

+ Environmental Working Group