Follow The Money: Why You Can’t Trust the EWG’s Ethically-Challenged Sunscreen Guide

It’s hard to find a more successful and widely accepted fear-mongering campaign than the Environmental Working Group’s annual Sunscreen Guide. Every year, the EWG “shames” sunscreens made with scary-sounding ingredients like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, and the public accepts their word for it.

The EWG’s scare tactics aren’t just erroneous. They’re also unethical. They sell their recommended sunscreens on their website — earning a profit on every sale.

image via flickr user dryhead
image via flickr user dryhead

You might be more familiar with the EWG’s Dirty Dozen, a list of fruits and vegetables the EWG says you should never buy in conventional form lest you drown in insignificant levels of pesticide residue. The EWG isn’t just an organization that promotes organic food. They also helped form pro-organic lobbyist group Organic Voices and the Just Label It campaign with organic companies like Stonyfield and Organic ValleyOrganic Valley’s counsel is also an EWG board member. In other words, conflicts of interest are kind of their sweet spot.

There is no reason you should buy the organic version of the “dirty dozen,” just like there’s no reason you should choose overpriced “natural” sunscreens over less expensive drugstore brands. The EWG’s dire warnings about oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate in sunscreen aren’t supported by scientific evidence. They’re just plain wrong.


Why does the EWG “shame” drugstore brand sunscreens in favor of pricey natural and organic ones?

The EWG is no impartial authority. Multiple EWG board members have ties to the natural skin care industry. Diet Quack Dr. Mark Hyman also sits on the board. He uses the EWG Sunscreen Guide to hawk his brand of Vitamin D supplements. The EWG recommends and sells sunscreens from The Honest Company too. That company was founded by the former CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World, an organization that has now been subsumed by the EWG. The EWG’s “Sun Safety Coalition” — a partnership between EWG and the companies it recommends — sells its partner companies’ sunscreens on the EWG site (the EWG profits from each online sale as an Amazon affiliate) and in retail stores who participate in their program. And so goes the circle of sunscreen.

Whether we’re talking about the ingredients in sunscreen or the pesticides used to grow our produce, it’s time we all learn that natural does not mean safer or less toxic. The EWG is counting on you to make choices based on fear. You can’t trust them.

More evidence-based criticism of the EWG’s sunscreen guide:

Shedding Light on Sun Protection Products

Sunscreen Causes Cancer? What a Dangerous Lie.

The Great Sunscreen Cover Up

Are There Worrisome Ingredients in Sunscreen?


Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

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  1. Retinyl palmitate, also known as vitamin A. Seriously? This is what they’re worried about? Just…just…just…*breaks down crying* but these same people would no doubt tell me vitamin pills are necessary…

  2. That’s great to know–thanks for the info! I’ve read so many scare stories based on their “findings.” I have extremely sensitive skin, which often reacts badly to sunscreens, But I also have a rare autoimmune disease (dermatomyositis) that requires me to protect my skin from the sun. I use a sunscreen recommended by my dermatologist now, but I’ve consulted their list in the past. No more!

    1. My daughter has eczema and we use Vanicream, one of the sunscreens that happens to be on their list. The EWG guide did call out a few brands for an ingredient which some people are in fact allergic/sensitive to but they didn’t mention that it only affects people with that sensitivity. So frustrating.

  3. So… can I be honest?

    I use their list to decide which of the sunscreens I *should* buy… because the ones they warn against seem to be some of the best sunscreens out there… usually…

  4. I have an extreme aversion to creams and such on my skin. I also burn so easily that I can still burn in the sun wearing SPF 30 within a half hour. I often wear long sleeves and pants and just stay out of the sun to begin with, but that is not always an option. I’ve been searching for many years for a non-sticky/fatty sunscreen.

    Not really relevant to the post, since I don’t avoid anything based on that list. Just kind of a complaint that all the least sticky spray things seem to come wit a max of SPF 20. Maybe it’s impossible to make a strong sunscreen that I don’t feel so much.

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