Everybody Calm The Fuck Down About Your Sunscreen

I was hoping this summer would be a quiet one for sunscreen. Yes, the Environmental Working Group published its annual sunscreen guide, but I figured the staggering amount of criticism the EWG receives might finally persuade everyone in the media to ignore it.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Despite the bad press, recent articles in Mother Jones and Parents treat the EWG’s warnings as reliable, science-based information even though they’re not.

So, here’s some evidence-based advice in response:

Everybody calm the fuck down about your sunscreen!

For those who don’t know the EWG, they’re an organization funded in part by the organic and natural products industries and known primarily for their consumer guides for everything from apples to Zika bug repellent.

The EWG isn’t always wrong. They’re just mostly wrong. Their criticisms of ultra high SPF sunscreens and advice about bug repellent (someone pinch me — did the EWG just advise against essential oils?) both have merit. Unfortunately, those few kernels of fact aren’t really sufficient to outweigh the majority of the EWG’s flawed advice.

When it comes to sunscreen, the EWG tells consumers to buy natural and organic brands (some of whom happen to be corporate partners, more on this here and here) over more economical drugstore brands like Neutrogena and Banana Boat. Despite significant backlash from experts, these brands have made their list of worst sunscreens for at least the past two years.



These “worst” brands contain the ingredients oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, ingredients which the EWG believes should be avoided because they could be harmful to human health.

The EWG even says all sunscreens should be avoided if possible, characterizing this widely available and affordable type of sun protection as a “last resort.”

Telling parents they shouldn’t use sunscreen is dangerous advice. Even though hats and protective clothing are great options — they’re definitely crucial for my pale skin — they’re not the only method of protection. For parents who find protective clothing to be cost-prohibitive, sunscreen is a reliable and affordable option. So go ahead and use sunscreen. It works, it’s cheap and there’s no reason to avoid it.

If you’re thinking maybe it’s best to buy an organic brand just to be safe, know that what you’re really paying for is clever marketing. Pediatrician Jamie Friedman, M.D., writing at the Scientific Parent blog, explains that “many sunscreens marketed as ‘organic’ are actually mineral sunscreens. Companies add the word organic as a marketing gimmick, that doesn’t mean they don’t work, just don’t be tricked into paying $30 for a bottle of sunscreen because it has the word organic on the bottle.”


So what about oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate — are they dangerous? Although the EWG continues to demonize economical sunscreen brands that contain these ingredients, most experts, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, agree these sunscreens are safe. Neuroscientist Alison Bernstein, PhD, writes at Fitness Reloaded, “while the toxicity of these chemicals is an ongoing area of research…if there is an effect, it is very small. And again, you have to compare that small, hypothetical risk to a large, very real risk [of skin cancer].”

Let’s review. Toxicologists say you should go ahead and wear sunscreen. Pediatricians say you should go ahead and wear sunscreen. The Skin Cancer Foundation says you should go ahead and wear sunscreen. So, please, just calm the fuck down and wear your sunscreen.

For more about the EWG and sunscreen:

Sunscreen Myths and Facts

The Great Sunscreen Cover-Up

Sol Survivor: Shedding Light on Sunscreen Ingredients (part one)

Sol Survivor: Shedding Light on Sunscreen Ingredients (part two)

Sunscreen Causes Cancer? What a Dangerous Lie.

Featured image via flickr user Mike Mozart.

Edit: Alison Bernstein’s title has been corrected. She is a neuroscientist.

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. That anyone would discourage parents from using sunscreen on their children makes me beyond angry. My grandfather died of melanoma. My mom just underwent her seventh surgery for skin cancer on her face alone (include the rest of her body and we’re into the dozens). My dad has had cancer on his face that required plastic surgery and still left very visible scarring. All of them got it from sun damage.

    Wear fucking sunscreen. Whatever reason you might have against it, it’s not worth it, I promise.

  2. I appreciate the effort to provide unbiased information about sunscreen and products.

    I’m wondering where you found the information that EWG calls sunscreen a “last resort?” I was so surprised that I checked out their site. Here’s what I found:

    On their home page, here’s an article on how to apply sun screen safely. Lots of mentions of how to use it. A brief mention of “not using sunscreen as the only defense,” which is in line with standard advice on sunscreen.

    The leading message on their “practice smart sun” campaign is: Sunscreen is important but it shouldn’t be your only protection from the sun.

    This advice appears to be fully in line with your sources, including the Skin Cancer Foundation, which recommends a full range of protection. In fact, using sun screen is their 4th recommendation, after using clothing and seeking shade.

    Speaking of the Skin Cancer Foundation . . . while you highlighted EWG’s relationship to product manufacturers, it might be also worth taking a look at the corporate partners for the Skin Cancer Foundation, which you can find here. Note that they include the brands deemed more affordable and still safe by this article: Banana Boat and Neutrogena.


    1. Hi Jeanette, if you follow the link and scroll down, the text reads Sunscreen should be your last resort. I believe it was also on a Facebook ad, but I have to check that when I’m back at my laptop.

      Re:EWG and ethics, I only barely touched on the issue in this piece but feel free to read my piece on them for Salon, which is linked.

  3. The problem I have with protective clothing is that, for the most part, it’s just too fucking hot where I live to sit around in pants and long sleeves all summer long.

  4. Wait, retinyl palmitate? Isn’t that, um, vitamin A? I mean, I guess it can bioaccumulate and cause toxicity, possibly if you eat a lot of liver, such as if you’re an Indian eating a completely traditional diet, but more likely if you take dietary supplements. And none of this has to do with rubbing it on your skin.

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