It’s the first day of summer…but in many parts of the country, the sun’s already been blazing. While you probably know you ought to be wearing sunscreen year-round, applying SPF is particularly important in the warmer seasons. As the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pointed out, this is when the sun’s rays are stronger, and many of us spend more time being exposed to them outside.

But lately, you may have heard rumblings that some sunscreens may actually be harmful. Sources have claimed ingredients in sunscreen can cause hormonal problems and skin sensitivity, or even increase the risk of some cancers.

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest took on an investigation about the state of sunscreens and our health. The findings were enlightening, but they take some understanding. Our research also highlighted how sunscreen regulation in the U.S. is nuanced, and why few regulatory updates on sunscreen have been enacted in almost 50 years.

Shedding light on the Environmental Working Group’s annual sunscreen report

Each spring, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases an annual guide assessing the safety and efficacy of sunscreen products sold in the U.S. in efforts to help the public make sense of which consumer products contain ingredients that could actually be doing you harm. The EWG is a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group founded in 1993 to help protect American’s environmental health by working to change industry standards.

Carla Burns, EWG’s senior director for cosmetic science, explained to The Healthy that the group uses a computer-based modeling system to score products based on a mix of their percentage of active ingredients and health harms associated with their formulas. Burns informed us that all the data they use to generate these scores can be found on product labels.

She also revealed there were a handful of takeaways from this year’s report, but that one of the most important is that many sunscreens sold in the U.S. are not guaranteed to be safe or effective. “Out of the 1,850 products we reviewed, only around one-quarter met EWG standards for efficacy and ingredients of concern,” Burns explained. She said the report also highlights the lack of federal regulation and evolution in the regulatory space.

Dermatologists’ take on current sunscreen research
On paper, the EWG report’s results may be enough to turn some people off sunscreen altogether. But according to dermatologists not involved in the report, these findings need to be taken with a major grain of salt.

Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, who is a professor and the chair of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., says it’s important to acknowledge that the EWG is providing a service with their advice to the public with respect to the safety of sun protective approaches, specifically sunscreen.

However, Friedman says, the organization may be “taking some liberties with the data available.”

“The facts we know are this: UV rays are a carcinogen as designated by the World Health Organization, and the connection between unprotected sun exposure and skin cancer is well documented,” Friedman said. He added that there is also solid scientific evidence that unprotected exposure to UV rays can accelerate skin aging and contribute to the development of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun spots.

Friedman worries that putting such definitive claims out in the public will potentially scare people off from using sunscreen. Sunscreens do have limitations, he says; but when they’re used appropriately, they’re a very important part of your overall sun protection plan. “There’s really no question: sunscreens will always play a very important role in how we protect people from the harmful effects of the sun.”

Darrel Rigel, a clinical professor and the director of the Melanoma Surveillance Clinic at the Mt. Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York City, adds that there’s fact in the EWG report, but the conclusions are a bit off.

So how should you interpret all this? Here’s what to keep in mind for finding a safe, and effective, sunscreen.

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