The 4 Most Effective Sunscreens (and 3 That Are Essentially Useless)

Effective sunscreens
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As soon as the high sun hits in the summer (and hopefully year-round too), you're probably accustomed to the very healthy habit of applying sunscreen. But we have some fairly sobering news to share that comes from the 2017 edition of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) annual report on sunscreen (its eleventh annual report of this kind)—nearly 75% of products on the market don't work because they either don't provide adequate protection from the sun's harmful rays, or they contain toxic ingredients. 

European Sunscreen Standards

It's widely known that Europe sets a higher bar for sunscreen products sold to customers, requiring UVA protection to rise in proportion with SPF numbers, which, for both the U.S. and Europe, only reflect UVB protection. UVA damage can be more subtle than that of UVB because it doesn't cause visible burning, but it can contribute to the development of melanoma. After analyzing more than 800 products on the market, the EWG found that nearly every sunscreen reviewed passes the FDA test, but that about half of them would not offer enough UVA protection to be sold in Europe.

U.S Sunscreens and UVA Protection

The EWG reports that U.S. sunscreens allow about three times more UVA rays to transfer through skin compared to European sunscreens. Many of the chemicals still used in sunscreens today can disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies, but these products have passed through loopholes from prior lax regulation; they wouldn't get to market if tried under today's more strict regulations (which still don't compare to the standards in Europe). 

The EWG found 241 sunscreens in the category of beach and sport that meet its criteria for hazard safety and effectiveness, and it found 107 products in the daily moisturizer category that meet its criteria. All of the products that met the criteria get a passing grade, but within those buckets, they are ranked from 1 to 12 in terms of a hazard score—1 being the best possible score a sunscreen could get. Here are the four most effective sunscreens for within these categories. 

The Top 4 Most Effective Sunscreens

Umbra(TM) Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 3 oz/ 90 mL
Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 $34
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With 20 percent zinc oxide and no essential oils, silicones, and fragrance, this "sheer physical sunscreen delivers powerful broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and aids in the prevention of free radical and oxidative damage." Plus the product is cruelty-free.

True Natural Ultra Protect SPF 50 Ultra Sunscreen $21
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Vegan and gluten-free, this antioxidant sunscreen is formulated for people with sensitive skin or those prone to skin allergies. The natural coconut oil has a fine fragrance. Note that "this formula will leave a slight white film due to the use of nano-particle free zinc and titanium primary particles."

Beauty Counter Protect All Over Sunscreen SPF 30 $32
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This sunscreen which protects against both UVA and UVB rays is lightweight, water-resistant, and contains non-nano zinc oxide, an effective mineral sun-blocker. It blends flawlessly without leaving white streaks. Aloe adds moisture to the skin and blood orange extract, rich in antioxidants, fights free radicals.

Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Lotion SPF 50 $12
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This tear-free formula is perfect for little ones. The zinc oxide sunscreen provides broad-spectrum SPF 50 sun protection and it's as gentle as water. Oat helps lock in hydration and nourishes young skin.

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