Not necessarily, say the folks at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that assessed the safety and effectiveness of nearly 500 sunscreens last year. While these products can block harmful UV rays and prevent sunburn, which may lower the risk of skin cancer, “not all sunscreens are created equal, in terms of the level of protection they provide and also in terms of how safe are the actual ingredients,” says Olga Naidenko, a senior scientist at EWG.
She adds that since the Food and Drug Administration has yet to finalize sunscreen regulations (a process underway since 1978), manufacturers are not required to show that their products work or to substantiate claims about them. “Everybody is using whatever label words they want . . . and [making] absolutely crazy statements about efficacy which are not substantiated,” Naidenko says.
So all the hype about 100+ protection? The truth is that larger SPF numbers aren’t much better, according to Warwick Morison, a professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He notes that an SPF of 30 blocks around 98 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF of 100 guards against 99 percent of them. “It’s incremental,” he says, and the greater the SPF, the higher the chance of skin irritation.
More important, “higher SPF ratings may actually be giving people a false sense of security, where they think they ... can just put it on once and they’re protected all day long — which is not the case,” says Washington dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi.
As for all those labels touting “broad-spectrum” protection, it’s important to note that SPF ratings in the United States are solely related to UVB rays, which cause sunburn, and do not address UVA rays, which can trigger deeper skin damage. UVA rays “are related to a number of known health effects, like immune suppression, connective tissue damage, premature aging and wrinkles, and also play an important role in the development of melanoma and potentially other skin cancers,” says David Andrews, also a senior scientist at EWG. He points out that two-thirds of the sunscreens the group evaluated last year would not meet European standards for broad-spectrum protection. As a result, he recommends reading product labels to find one of the gold-standard ingredients for UVA protection: avobenzone, zinc oxide or the slightly less effective titanium dioxide.
Even when you pick a good product, it’s essential to slather on at least a shot glass worth of cream for the average adult body. “The main problem with sunscreen is that people just don’t use enough of it,” says Morison, pointing to several studies showing that people tend to apply much less sunscreen than needed — even when they have specific usage instructions.