The group will release its analysis as part of its 2019 Guide to Sunscreens, a yearly report on sunscreen safety that the nonprofit began in 2006.
“Even though we’ve come up with similar results in our guide before, comparing it to the FDA’s actual proposed standards is really strong,” Leiba said. “So the fact that 60% of the market seemingly wouldn’t be considered safe and effective by the FDA is a huge deal.”
The big deal of skin cancer
While many people today turn to sunscreens as their first choice for sun protection, it wasn’t until recently that sunscreen ingredients were regulated by the FDA, said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, acting medical director of the American Cancer Society.
“We couldn’t even be certain what was in the product until the FDA came out with some rules that define how to test sunscreens and how to label them,” he said.
The need for additional testing
The Environmental Working Group found that over two-thirds of the sunscreens in its 2018 report contain oxybenzone, often with varying mixtures of the other common chemicals.
The FDA study did not show that oxybenzone and the other ingredients can cause health issues, experts stress, only that the chemicals could be absorbed. The FDA, the American Cancer Society and the Environmental Working Group, among others, recommend that consumers continue to use sunscreen appropriately.
In a statement in February, the national trade council for sunscreen, cosmetic and personal care products said the findings might confuse consumers and discourage the use of sunscreen. “The presence of sunscreens in plasma after maximal use does not necessarily lead to safety issues,” said Alex Kowcz, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council.
The problem with 100+ SPF coverage
The FDA says there is no good data showing that sunscreens can protect past a level of 60+ SPF, and therefore labeling sunscreen at levels higher than 60+ could be misleading by providing a false sense of sun protection.
The Environmental Working Group’s new report will examine how many of the products tested were labeled as SPF 50 or higher.
“Using a sunscreen with poor UVA protection on a vacation is similar to taking a trip or two to a tanning salon,” said David Andrews, senior scientist with the group.
Only sunscreens labeled as broad-spectrum protect against both types of ultraviolet light. The FDA’s proposed guidelines say sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher must be broad-spectrum, offering protection against UVA rays.
In addition, the FDA wants the extra UVA protection to rise along with UVB protection. So as a product moves toward SPF 60+, so too grows the level of UVA protection.
Based on its modeling, the Environmental Working Group believes 25% of all sunscreen products on the market today would fail the new FDA standards for UVA protection.
Concerns about spray sunscreens
The possible danger posed by spray and powder forms of sunscreen application is another area of FDA concern. Sprays are potentially combustible, and both sprays and powders can enter the lungs if particles are small enough.
Environmental Protection Agency studies of particle pollution, the fine film of water and dust/chemical/soot/acid particles that hangs in the air, show that anything 10 micrometers in diameter or less poses the greatest health problems because they can enter the lungs.
Spray sunscreens are on the rise, says the Environmental Working Group. Due to the lack of definitive testing, the group recommends that all sprays be avoided.
The standards set in the proposed FDA guidelines could easily be changed by lobbying efforts and additional data, Leiba said. But the group, which has been petitioning the FDA for increased scrutiny for years, is heartened that many of their safety suggestions are being evaluated.
In the meantime, consumers should continue to protect their skin from the sun and choose sunscreens with the lowest risk, she said.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen the FDA really showing their concern about sunscreen,” Leiba said. “If the FDA’s doing that, it really means that consumers need to take heed.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the release date of EWG’s annual report and included information about spray sunscreens that has not been released yet.