Natural vs. Chemical Sunscreen, Part 2: The Recommendations

In Part 1 of this series on natural and chemical sunscreens, I covered the basics.  Here, we see that relatively minor shifts in priority between efficacy and potential health risks yield starkly different results in evaluating sunscreens.  To show this, I compared product recommendations from Consumer Reports and Environmental Working Group.  These two organizations consider many of the same factors but weigh them differently.

Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is a non-profit, non-partisan, research advocacy group. It bases its reviews primarily on efficacy and does not factor in safety. It does not set forth a stated preference for natural versus chemical sunscreen.  That said, Consumer Reports acknowledges concerns about sunscreen ingredients, discussing the chemicals oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, as well as potential dangers from nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. According to Consumer Reports, nanoparticles have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in animals.

Despite these references, Consumer Reports acknowledges that research has not determined the long-term effects of these mineral or chemical ingredients on humans, and therefore, concludes that the benefits of sunscreen outweigh the risks. Coming from that vantage point, Consumer Reports’ recommended sunscreen list considers efficacy to be paramount, and on that, suggests that chemical sunscreen outperforms natural (if you want to view the full list and ratings, you must subscribe). There are no natural sunscreens on the list, and many of Consumer Reports’ recommendations include SPFs of 50+ and sprays.

Top rated sunscreens include products from Vichy, Coppertone, Banana Boat, L’Oreal, La Roche-Posay, Avon, Neutrogena, and Equate.

Environmental Working Group

EWG is a non-profit, non-partisan, research advocacy organization that champions sunscreen that contains only naturally-sourced ingredients – or, on the second tier, a sunscreen that, at the very least, contains no oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. EWG argues that we should avoid chemical ingredients because many, in particular oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, are linked to endocrine disorders in animals and skin cancers in mice. EWG also insists that we should “banish” all sunscreens with SPFs above 50, because this is “misleading,” and all sunscreen sprays due to inhalation risks and poor coverage. EWG also discusses the nanoparticle issue, explaining that a risk-free sunscreen may not exist but that a natural one poses less potential risk than one containing chemicals. Here’s a glimpse of EWG’s perspective:

“But here’s the deal, as we see it: nano particles in eye shadow, blush, body glitter and other purely cosmetic products is beyond dumb. Suncreens? Different stakes. When moms and dads are asking what product they should put on their kids to protect them from the sun today, they need an answer, not campaign rhetoric…This isn’t eye shadow or mascara we’re talking about – this is a product meant to help protect us from exposure to a known human carcinogen, UV radiation, responsible for a huge fraction of the more than one million cases of skin cancer diagnosed in this country every year. If you go zinc- and titanium-free when it comes to sunscreen, chances are, you’ll be left with more UV exposure and more hazardous ingredients. Is that what we want in our sunscreens? Are you willing to take those risks? We’re not.”

EWG publishes a sunscreen guide that provides ratings for hundreds of products.  EWG’s ratings are based on a combination of the following factors:

  • Health hazards associated with listed ingredients based on a review of nearly 60 standard industry, academic, government regulatory and toxicity databases
  • UVB protection (using SPF rating as the indicator of effectiveness);
  • UVA protection (using a standard industry absorbance model);
  • Balance of UVA/UVB protection (using the ratio of UVA absorbance to SPF);
  • Sunscreen stability (how quickly an ingredient breaks down in the sun, using an in-house stability database compiled from published findings of industry and peer-reviewed stability studies).

EWG puts more stock into animal study data suggesting organ toxicity from oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. And it questions the safety of all other chemical ingredients. From EWG’s perspective, since we do not know how animal studies translate to humans – whether we will suffer similar health consequences or whether effects are dose dependent – EWG errs on the side of caution. In the spirit of doing no harm, EWG does consider origin or composition a safety criterion. The group scrutinizes all chemical sunscreens. EWG’s conclusions about efficacy also differ from Consumer Reports, as it argues that physical blocking agents are comparable to chemical agents. EWG’s position may be explained in part on its stance that sunscreen generally does not actually prevent most skin cancer.

Top rated sunscreens include products from All Terrain, Badger, California Baby, Goddess Garden, Sunumbra, and TruKid.

EWG also publishes a “Sunscreen Hall of Shame.” Ironically, you’ll notice that Neutrogena, a “dermatologist recommended” brand that Consumer Reports highly rates, tops the list this year.

Different Priorities Yield Diametrically Opposed Results

The differences in weighting between efficacy and health considerations by Consumer Reports and EWG yield some funky results for the same products.  For example, Consumer Reports rates Coppertone Water BABIES SPF 50 lotion very highly (98 out of 100), while EWG gives the same sunscreen a score of 5 out of 10 (1 being the best). This is at least in part because EWG docks a product significantly for making a claim of SPF 50+, being a spray, or containing either oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate.

IMG_0304imageOn the other hand, questionable efficacy and reliability (or UVB protection) results in low scores for Consumer Reports. For instance, Consumer Reports gave Babyganics Mineral-Based Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 a 44 our of 100, and noted that it actually only provides SPF 25 after water immersion – 50% less than its claim. EWG gives the same products a 2 out of 10 (1 being the best) and reports that it provides “good” UVA protection and a “moderate” balance of UVA protection in relation to SPF (UVB).

Interestingly, this Babyganics sunscreen made the EWG’s list of “Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens,” along with 216 other (only) mineral sunscreens. This title suggests that these sunscreens can withstand water and sweat for some duration of time. However, I was not able to find an indication of water resistance testing.

Decisions, Decisions

As I stated in Part 1, I still stand firm that efficacy is the most important criterion for sunscreen. However, I appreciate the safety concerns. Perhaps by cross-referencing both sources, you may be able to find the right mix of efficacy and health considerations.


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Categories: Sun Protection


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