Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Your Sunblock Probably Isn't Blocking the Sun

EWG ad

Chalk one up for the sun in the ongoing battle to keep ourselves from frying. A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) of 446 beach and sport sunscreens with SPF ratings of 30+—all sold in the U.S.—found that a whopping 284 sunscreens offer minimal protection from ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which can burn us even on cloudy days.

Among the popular brands that offer high SPF ratings but low UVA protection: Banana Boat, Coppertone, Fruit of the Earth, and Panama Jack. These brands—along with hundreds of others—fail to protect against between 90% and 99% of the ultraviolet light that reaches us every day.

Why the widespread lack of UVA protection? The FDA, which hasn't updated its sunscreen regulations in more than 30 years, is largely to blame. None of those 284 sunscreens The EWG explains:

A major obstacle to progress is the federal Food and Drug Administration, which has never managed to sign, seal and deliver the sunscreen regulations it began developing in 1978. The latest draft of those rules was issued in 2007 but ended up in regulatory limbo, where it remains. Even though it can't seem to close the deal on its regulation, the FDA insists that manufacturers who make sunscreens for the American market stick to a list of 17 ingredients ... By contrast, sunscreen makers catering to the European market can choose among 28 active ingredients.

The EWG claims that many of the ingredients used on the European market, including Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M and Mexoryl SX, are nontoxic. But the FDA hasn't completed safety and effectiveness for the Europe-approved compounds, so it's hard to say definitively.

The FDA's failure to pass sunscreen regulations has also allowed sunscreens with potentially cancer-triggering ingredients on the market; a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, found in 41% of sunscreens, is thought to speed up skin damage and increase skin cancer risk when applied to the face, arms, legs, back, and chest. Clearly, it's time to ramp up the pressure on the FDA to produce new regulations.


Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.