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.
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:
Featured image via flickr user Mike Mozart.
Edit: Alison Bernstein’s title has been corrected. She is a neuroscientist.