A report that went viral earlier this summer claims Neutrogena has some of the worst sunscreen products you can buy. But what does that mean? If Neutrogena is so bad, what should you be using instead?
First, let’s go to sunscreen school.
There are some important terms to know when evaluating a sunscreen:
- Chemical sunscreen: This is the kind of sunscreen you’re most likely to find at your drugstore; the majority of sunscreens from big-name brands fall into this category. Chemical sunscreens contain — you guessed it — chemicals that absorb the sun’s rays. Signals you’re using a chemical sunscreen: Its active ingredients are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, homosalate, or octocrylene. (Other chemicals may also be on the label; those are the most common active ingredients.) Compared to physical sunscreens, chemical sunscreens need more time to start working because they must bond with the skin first.
- Physical sunscreen: This is the kind of sunscreen that can also be called sunblock, as it contains particles that actually block, or reflect, the sun’s rays. Signals you’re using a physical sunscreen: Its active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Compared to chemical sunscreens, physical sunscreens start working immediately. They may feel thicker or be tougher to rub into skin, though companies are innovating in that area.
- SPF: The acronym for Sun Protection Factor, this refers to how much sun a sunscreen can block or deflect. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of at least 30, which can handle 97 percent of rays. But a higher SPF isn’t always better. Nothing is 100 percent effective, and the FDA — which regulates sunscreen labeling in the United States — has considered a rule that would limit a product’s claims to “SPF 50+,” though it is not currently in effect.
- UVA vs. UVB: There are two types of ultraviolet rays. The American Academy of Dermatology breaks it down this way: UVA rays are responsible for premature aging of skin; UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn. Overexposure to either can lead to skin cancer. Sunscreens labeled as “broad-spectrum” are so named because they can protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
So, why is Neutrogena supposedly so bad?
Back to that report. It’s the 9th annual best (and worst) sunscreen guide from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that takes on research and advocacy in many categories, from energy to consumer products to water safety. EWG’s sunscreen reports focus on a few different things: the active ingredients in a sunscreen and how safe they are, the other additives in a sunscreen and their effects, and whether the sunscreens live up to their claims. (For example, the EWG is generally against products listing very high SPF values.) In determining its “Hall of Shame” for 2015, the EWG dings sunscreen sprays, products that list SPF values over 50, products that contain oxybenzone, and products that contain retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A.
Why are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate so bad? That’s where it gets tricky. Research cited by the EWG suggests that oxybenzone is an “endocrine disruptor” that can act like estrogen in the body. Other researchers say that those concerns, which come from animal studies, are not borne out in humans. As for retinyl palmitate/Vitamin A, the EWG cites research suggesting that Vitamin A — marketed as an ingredient that slows skin aging — may have the opposite effect during sun exposure (as opposed to, say, using it in a moisturizing night cream). The FDA says there’s not enough evidence to call it harmful, though some other countries’ health agencies have more restrictions around it.
The sunscreens in this year’s “Hall of Shame” have at least three of EWG’s strikes against them, and the spray sunscreens have all four. Of EWG’s 34 worst sunscreens (divided into sprays, lotions, and kid-specific products), 6 are made by Neutrogena, which it specifically called out from having “hype far from reality.” Other brands with products on the shame list: Banana Boat, Coppertone, CVS, Equate, No-Ad, Kroger, and Up & Up.
What sunscreen should you use instead?
If your sunscreen or sunscreen brand is on EWG’s list, do you need to switch? That depends on how you feel about the research EWG cites. But let’s say you do want to avoid those sunscreens. Where do you go?
Do you want a chemical sunscreen?
What chemical sunscreens have going for them: they’re more available in drugstores and supermarkets, they tend to be cheaper, they rub in more easily, and they often come in larger bottles. What they don’t have: chemicals. But even EWG acknowledges that some of those chemicals are better than others. Its hazard score system names avobenzone as the best of the chemical sunscreen ingredients, and homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene are in a more moderate-risk category. So, just like with food, always check the label: If a sunscreen has avobenzone as an active ingredient but doesn’t have oxybenzone (or octinoxate, EWG’s other least-favorite chemical) or added Vitamin A, it’s likely to rank higher with the EWG. (You can also search for your specific sunscreen on EWG’s site.)
Many of the brands EWG calls out in its Hall of Shame do make sunscreens that are more acceptable on EWG’s scale, including Ocean Potion, Banana Boat, CVS, and, yes, even Neutrogena — though the Neutrogena products EWG likes most happen to be physical sunscreens.
Spray sunscreens in general have some downsides apart from their chemical content: They’re not the favorite from any environmental perspective, plus it can be hard to get full coverage, and people (especially kids) might accidentally inhale the spray. FDA-wise, they’re considered safe, but because of the whole set of issues, we don’t favor them.
Or do you want a physical sunscreen?
Many of EWG’s preferred sunscreens come from smaller companies you won’t find at the drugstore, but some big-name brands are moving into that area as well. Here’s one tip: to increase your chances of grabbing a physical sunscreen from a big brand like Banana Boat or a store brand like CVS, start with the baby sunscreen. For whatever reason, those are more likely to have zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as their active ingredients.
As for the brands EWG favors, many of them can be pricey, tough to get your hands on, or both. So Spright did some of the work for you. We picked top brands from EWG’s best sport and beach sunscreens database, looked for the ones available via Amazon, and figured out the best value in terms of price per ounce, with a focus on whole-body sunscreens vs. sunscreens for face only. We used list prices for our math when we could find them, but Amazon currently sells many of them for less. The cheapest of EWG’s best (all $3 per ounce or cheaper):
- Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen, SPF 50+ ($23 for 12 ounces)
- JASON Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30 ($9 for 4 ounces)
- Dr. Mercola Natural Sunscreen, SPF 15 ($20 for 8 ounces)
- Naked Turtle Natural Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 15 ($16 for 6 ounces)
- Alba Botanica Very Emollient Mineral Sunscreen Sport, SPF 45 ($11.50 for 4 ounces)
- Safe Harbor Natural Suncare Sensitive Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50 ($12 for 4 ounces)
Here are all 50 we tracked down in a sortable spreadsheet.
One final thing:
The best sunscreen is the one you’ll actually use regularly — not apply sparingly because it was so expensive, or because you don’t trust its ingredients, or because you don’t like how it feels on your skin. The “right amount” of sunscreen to use, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, is approximately one ounce — a shot glass — to cover your body, reapplied every two hours in the sun. Find something you’ll use often and with confidence.