Staying Safe in the Sun: EWG Releases its 2011 Sunscreen Guide

Having long ago rejected the Tan-Is-Sexy ideology and embraced the Hip-To-Be-Pale philosophy, I've no qualms about fiendishly slathering on the sunscreen when I head outdoors.  It prevents me from getting sunburned – and helps allay my fear of suffering other sun-induced damage (i.e., skin cancer).

Of course, as the experts will tell you, the best way to protect your skin is to avoid sun exposure altogether by staying in the shade or wearing protective clothing.  This works well for vampires and people who always carry parasols, but if you're anything like me, when the weather warms, you periodically find yourself outside wearing little more than a worn-out pair of nylon soccer shorts that you purchased in the mid 1990s. In such situations, it’s a very good idea to use sunscreen – because nothing spoils summer fun like squamous cell carcinoma.

But which sunscreen is best?  You might assume that they're all pretty much the same… the government does set standards for this stuff, right?  Wrong!  Although the FDA announced its intention to regulate sunscreen back in 1978, the agency has yet to finalize any regulations.  As a result, sunscreens vary dramatically in terms of effectiveness (i.e., ability to block the harmful UVA and UVB rays that cause sunburns and skin cancer), and safety (i.e., ability to be used without disrupting hormonal function, increasing the risk of skin cancer or otherwise impairing human health).

Fortunately for the non-vampires among us, Environmental Working Group released its 2011 Sunscreen Guide just in time for summer!  The guide includes detailed ratings of 1,700 products from 292 brands, along with a comprehensive report describing the science and politics of sunscreen.  Users can search by brand and product type, or view all sunscreens sorted by rating.  EWG also compiled a list of the best sunscreens along with a hall of shame.

Not convinced you should use the guide?  Consider these startling facts from EWG’s report:

  • Vitamin A – an ingredient used in many sunscreens – may actually speed the development of cancer.
  • 60% of the sunscreens analyzed by EWG were too weak to be sold in Europe.
  • US sunscreen manufacturers aren’t required to test for SPF protection or verify waterproof claims.
  • High-SPF sunscreens may be detrimental since they give a false sense of security and lead users to reapply less frequently.
  • Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US – it accounts for almost half of all cancer cases.

Given the ease with which one can search the guide, there’s really no reason not to make a prudent sunscreen choice.  Unless you prefer an alternative sun protection strategy...

*Environmental Working Group does plenty of other great work; check out their Farm Subsidy Database, Guide to Pesticides in Produce and Cosmetics Database.