Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Sunscreen Woes – The EWG Releases Its Annual Sunscreen Report May 28, 2010


This week the Environmental Work Group, a non-profit watch dog organization made up of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers that researches and reports on issues concerning public health and the environment, released its newest report on sunscreen.  And the report is a doozy.  According to the standards that it sets for safety and effectiveness of sunscreens only 8% of the 500 beach and sport sunscreens that the EWG tested, that means only 39 out of 500, are recommended by the organization.

The report is extensive and long, I’ve been reading it over the last few days, and if taken at face value – scary.  As with all past EWG sunscreen reports there is much bad news and little good news about sunscreens (none really).  I looked up all my favorite sunscreens (the ones I use personally and the ones I recommend to clients, family, and friends) and all of them got poor ratings from the EWG.  What’s an esthetician to do? 

Here are the main points of the report:

  • Sunscreens do not offer enough UVA protection which then exposes people to cancer
  • Spf ratings have gotten out of control.  Spf ratings of 50 and higher aren’t much more effective than spf 30 and furthermore, the high ratings cause people to both stay out in the sun too long and use too little sunscreen
  • When Vitamin A (look for retinol or retinyl palmitate in the ingredient list) is added to sunscreen it will breakdown in the presence of sunlight and thus speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions
  • As sunscreen ingredients breaks down in the precense of sunlight it causes free radical damage
  • The FDA takes too long to approve new and effective sunscreen ingredients (ingredients that are already used in European sunscreen formulations) and to publish new regulations regarding sunscreen
  • Oxybenzone, a very popular chemical sunscreen ingredient (try finding a sunscreen without it – it’s close to impossible) is a hormone disrupting compound.  This chemical penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream causing damage or worse to the body.

All pretty upsetting things, right?  My fear every time I read the EWG’s sunscreen report is that people will stop using sunscreen because of it.  The EWG even states that the best ways to protect yourself from sunburn and sun damage is not to apply sunscreen but rather to seek shade, wear protective clothing, and avoid the sun in general especially mid-day.  All great advice – but realistically – how many people can maintain a lifestyle like that?

Two other issues brought up in the report interested me in particular.  In the section of the report called Hall of Shame the EWG gives a great big thumbs down to powder sunscreens.  Anyone who has read this blog knows that I use powder (brush-on) sunscreens daily and highly recommend them as a convenient way to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day particularly if you wear make-up.  The EWG objects to powder sunscreens because they say that the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide particles can be easily inhaled and settle in various parts of the body causing damage and irritation.  Another point from the Hall of Shame section of the report is about The Skin Cancer Foundation and their seal of approval on sunscreen products.  According to the EWG all a company has to do in order to receive this seal of approval is to donate $10,000 to the foundation and prove basic claims about their sunscreens and its spf factor.  The company’s seeking approval for their products do not have to prove if the product provides adequate UVA protection, and the company can even make claims about their products that violate FDA regulations.  Since I continually mention The Skin Cancer Foundation in this blog and ways to support their work this information was very interesting to me.


So Should You Worry?  Should You Throw Out Your Sunscreens?

Opposing Opinions to the EWG Report



First and foremost, please keep using sunscreen daily and keep reapplying it especially if you are spending the day outdoors! 

Now should you only use the sunscreens that get the best ratings from the EWG?  Truthfully I don’t know.  First off, all the sunscreens that the EWG recommends are rather obscure, for lack of a better term, for the most part.  These are not the brands that you can readily find on the shelves of Target, Walgreens, and CVS for the most part. 

So is it right to err on the side of caution and only use sunscreens that the EWG recommends?  Perhaps.  But you should know that not everyone agrees with the EWG’s findings.

I found a report on the Cosmetics and Toiletries website that quotes John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, views on the EWG report.  The Personal Care Products Council  is the trade association representing the cosmetic, toiletry and fragrance industry in the United States and globally.

I would like to quote the response in full since it addresses all the issues mentioned above:

John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, has released a statement in response to the 2010 Environmental Working Group (EWG) Sunscreen Report.

Bailey finds the report unscientific and unsubstantiated, noting that the American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation, the Center for Disease Control, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), physicians and other health care professionals have all emphasized the safety of sunscreen use. Bailey is concerned that the group’s report will needlessly cause consumers to avoid using sunscreens, when that use is critical to prevent skin damage and skin cancer.

“Sunscreens in the United States are regulated as OTC drugs by the FDA and must undergo pre-market approval that involves rigorous scientific assessment including safety and efficacy substantiation according to FDA standards,” noted Bailey. He furthered, “The FDA testing and regulatory process for sunscreen products is the most rigorous in the world.”

According to Bailey, EWG did not use the established scientific and regulatory safety assessment process for sunscreen products and ingredients. The following topics are those proposed and questioned in the report.  

Vitamin A: In their report, EWG questioned the safety of vitamin A in sunscreens, referencing the National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) announcement in 2000 that it would study the potential of retinyl palmitate to enhance UV radiation-induced photocarcinogenisity. Bailey noted that the study is ongoing (scheduled for late 2010 or early 2011) but is not designed to study retinyl palmitate in the presence or absence of sunscreen formulations. He notes that retinyl palmitate has been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) expert panel and found to be safe in cosmetics.

Skin cancer: EWG questions the ability of sunscreen to fight skin cancer based on increased skin cancer rates. Bailey maintains that skin cancer rates are the result of excessive unprotected sun exposure from several decades prior and on our ability to better track, monitor and report occurrence of the disease.

Oxybenzone: In response to the safety of oxybenzone, Bailey notes, “When used as a sunscreen ingredient, oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3, protects the skin from harmful UV rays. Oxybenzone is also used to protect cosmetics and personal care products from degradation by absorbing UV rays.” Benzophenone-3 is approved in the United States, Canada and the EU as a safe and effective OTC sunscreen ingredient. In addition, it has been found safe for use as a photostabilizer by the CIR. Finally, Bailey added that there have been no available scientific data supporting a link between UV filter exposure to endocrine-disruptive effects in humans.

Nanotechnology: Nanoparticles have been found to pose no risk to human health, according to Bailey. In addition, when used to protect against UV damage, nanoparticles are required to go through an extensive FDA pre-market review process to prove they are safe and effective.

FDA sunscreen monograph: Finally, Bailey added that the FDA is not intentionally delaying the release of the final sunscreen regulations. He noted that establishing sunscreen safety standards is a long and vigorous process, and that the FDA is considering a number of viewpoints before establishing final guidelines.

So who to believe?  Frankly and honestly, I just don’t know.  I wonder sometimes if the EWG is hysterical or if they are right and we are all just sticking our heads in the sand.  This question made me think of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.  When the book was first published in 1962 and warned of grave health and environmental issues that were affecting everyone and being ignored by the government and industry, many people didn’t want to believe Carson.  Of course, it turns out that Carson was right, particularly when it came to the horrible effects of DDT on the environment and human health.  So I ask myself – is the EWG right?  Should I follow all their instructions?

Truthfully, at the moment I am not going to change anything.  But when I run out of my current sunscreens I think I will look at the EWG’s recommendations again and perhaps try one of the sunscreens that gets a best rating from them.   As for The Skin Cancer Foundation, I still think their website is an excellent source of information about skin cancer prevention and issues, and I will continue to recommend that people look at the site.  I’ll also keep using my brush-on sunscreen.  I just think that concern might be overblown.

I would be very curious to hear what my readers have to say about the report.  If anyone has tried any of the sunscreens that the EWG recommends I would like to hear what you think about them.

Here is a link to another blogger’s take on the EWG report.  You can find the American Cancer Society’s comments on the EWG report here.

Here is one of  The Skin Cancer Foundation’s response to the EWG report.  This is a more comprehensive response by The Skin Cancer Foundation.

And here is a comment from Allure magazine about the issue of Vitamin A in sunscreens.

P.S.  – About two weeks after writing the above post I went to the dermatologist for a skin cancer screening.  While there I asked her what she thought of the EWG’s sunscreen report.   Her response was that she didn’t agree with the findings in the report and that the group’s conclusions were misguided and even silly.  Though my initially my thoughts about the EWG sunscreen report had been more borderline, that I was inclined to change my sunscreens to recommended brands by the EWG eventually, now after more thought I am beginning to think that the dermatologist is right.  Since the EWG is the ONLY group saying the things that they are saying about sunscreens I want validation for at least another source before agreeing with them.  The dermatologist told me that she recommends La Roche Posay Anthelios 45 Ultra-Light Fluid for Face and Vanicream SPF 30 (which by the way the EWG thinks is ok) as good sunscreens for her patients to use. 

For more opinions on the sunscreen controversy see my post The Debate Continues.

For Dr. Leslie Baumann’s opinion about the EWG’s sunscreen report see this blog post by her.

The American Academy of Dermatology disagrees with the EWG’s findings on retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) in sunscreens.



5 Responses to “Sunscreen Woes – The EWG Releases Its Annual Sunscreen Report”

  1. Pam Says:

    This is an excellent write-up. Thanks for being so quick and for doing the legwork! I had the same concerns as you after reading the report and looking up my own sunscreens, SPF moisturizers, and SPF makeup. I’d also like to see others’ reviews on EWG-recommended products because my acne-prone skin is picky when it comes to the texture and consistency of lotions and creams. The only brand I recognize from their list of SPF moisturizers is OBAGI so I wouldn’t mind trying that one.

  2. Cindy Says:

    I stumbled across your blog when trying to find some information about the retinyl issue. I’m really not sure who to believe either. I’ve been using one of the sunscreens (Mexitan) deemed ‘safer’ in previous years, but now on the “bad” list because it contains retinyl palmitate. Like you, I don’t want to completely ignore their advice – what if they are right, but then again, it’s been common knowledge that you need to use sunscreen when using products with Vitamin A, right? So I also find it hard to believe this has been some sort of big secret for 10 years. I even found a Swiss study that concluded that retinyl provided some protection from UVB rays, so who to believe? But again, what if the EWG is right. I fall into the ‘high risk’ category for skin care – red hair, blue eyes, sunburns as a kid, and I live in a very sunny location. I have a 4 yr old daughter with blond hair and blue eyes, so I try to be careful with what products I put on her skin, and thankfully she’s yet to have a sunburn. We try to avoid the sun during mid-day, but that’s impossible to do every single day (unless I want to be a hermit and not enjoy a trip to the beach, out on the boat, etc.).

    But as others point out, most of their recommendations have to be ordered online and aren’t readily available on store shelves. California Baby is about one of the few you can find at Target, but like most of the others, it cost a fortune (which is why I ended up using Mexitan, while not cheap, it’s less expensive than some of the others). I have to admit, I have ordered some Badger sunscreen, and have some Purple Prairie already that I think I’ll try this weekend. But what to do with the 2 half bottles of Mexitan and the unopened one? I’ll probably still end up using them. I emailed Mexitan, and their president wrote me back, supporting their decision to include retinyl in the ingredients, citing that the study is 10 years old and preliminary. I also wonder if it is Vitamin A that is the problem, what about these “safe” sunscreens that are formulated with ingredients that naturally contain Vitamin A, like shea butter?

    So I really don’t know. I don’t know if I believe either side completely. I think both have a vested interested. The industry heads are in the market of trying to make a dollar, while on the other hand, I do think EWG tries to evoke fear in their readers. I have read their sunscreen report every year, and really, besides the retinyl issue, there is nothing new there, which makes me wonder, did they did up an issue to make news? Otherwise they’d be rehashing the 2009 report.

  3. Ink Says:

    Frankly, John Bailey certainly sounds like he’s making more sense.

    But note that the EWB claims don’t actually require much change. I mean, of course, you have to get UVA protection, that’s no news. High SPF is good, but you just have to remember to still be aware of the risks that sun poses. Using vitamin A as a night product and being careful about sunscreen afterwards is a very common suggestion. You cannot do anything about the FDA. Powder sunscreens are usually not recommended due to inadequate protection. And – sunscreen ingredients might cause free radical damage, but the real question is whether this damage is greater than going unprotected. I’m guessing not.

    The only actual issue left is the use of oxybenzone. You might decide to avoid it just to be on the safe side – there are plenty of sunscreens for sensitive skin that only rely on physical sunscreen ingredients, especially zinc oxide. I would not go out of my way to do that, however, without hard evidence.

    The EWG suggests that 1) they reveal the truth; and that 2) some other organizations, such as the FDA and the Skin Cancer Foundation act unethically or even conspire against the general health of the public. I would be very careful about taking such claims at face value without some actual evidence.

  4. Thanks for all the responses. I know that the EWG report definitely gets people’s attention and gets people thinking and talking about these issues which I think is a good thing. I did hesistate about including Personal Care Products Council ‘s response in my blog because as Cindy pointed out above they do have vested interest in denying the EWG’s claims, but I wanted a counter opinion so that is why I included it. I also included a link to the other post I found that has the American Cancer Society’s response to the EWG report to provide a further counter balance. Overall after looking over the EWG report I think finding the right sunscreen just got harder.

  5. catherine Says:

    Check out these guys at They have figured out what the big sunscreen companies have not. Every drop is effective ingredient. It is not watered down and does not contain synthetic chemicals. I love it! My skin is very smooth and blemish-free also.

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