The Environmental Working Group recently released its annual sunscreen screed— a report that claims that three-quarters of 750 sunscreens tested are either insufficiently safe or outright dangerous.
But the group is also making some money off the sale of sunscreens that it deems acceptable.
During May and June, the Environmental Working Group typically earns around $30,000 from Amazon purchases of the sunblock it recommends in its controversial annual report.
The list of EWG-approved sunblock includes not only affordable options but also some extraordinarily expensive ones: a six-ounce Tommy Bahama sunscreen that retails for $100; organic sunscreen by Kabana that costs nearly $40 and is advertised as “great for Northern and Eastern European heritage”; and a 1.3 oz bottle of luxury broad-spectrum sunscreen by Chantecaille, which is sold for $99.99.
EWG participates in the Amazon Affiliate program, where partners who refer at least 3,000 clients to Amazon earn a cut of more than 8 percent on each purchased product.
EWG’s website lists an Amazon link on its “Ways to Donate” page. In addition to recommending sunscreens, EWG also has recommendations for household cleaners, cosmetics and other products, earning a total commission of $140,000 from Amazon last year, the nonprofit green group said.
EWG says its Amazon earnings does not create a conflict of interest or affect the objectivity of its reports. Sonya Lunder, one of the sunscreen guide’s authors, calls the profits from the Amazon partnership “totally independent of our sunscreen ratings.”
Amazon store can make a purchase of anything—snow blower or snow tire or sunscreen,” Lunder says. “This is standard. They can buy a poorly rated sunscreen. They can buy anything they want.”
Nneka Leiba, EWG’s deputy director of research, adds, “The science team is completely outside of the sphere of things” related to sales or profits. She says the organization chose to partner with Amazon because it’s a convenient one-stop place for EWG’s readers to buy the products they consider safest.
EWG’s sunscreen report has come under fire by dermatologists, who say the study improperly draws broad implications for humans from single-study findings. For instance, EWG calls sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone “the most worrisome” ingredient in non-mineral sunscreens.
But Dr. Darrell Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University, says EWG draws its conclusions about oxybenzone based on a single study where lab rats received massive doses of the chemical, then experienced slightly enlarged uteri.
Rigel says that study has few implications for humans because “if you applied sunscreen to your face and arms every single day, it would take 35 years to get to the amount that rat did in one dose.”
In contrast, the widespread use of sunscreen has revealed that it is safe.
Dr. Jessica Krant, a dermatologist at the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York, told us: “I have yet to see definitive proof that sunscreens used on intact human skin have ever caused problems. It’s much more important to protect the skin from skin cancer and aging than it is to avoid using sunscreen because some of these unproven concerns.”
Dermatologists told Heat Street that their patients frequently ask whether sunscreen is safe, leading them to believe that reports like the EWG study guide may result in less frequent use of sunblock, putting Americans at increased risk for skin cancer.
EWG researcher Lunder disagrees, saying the report encourages sunscreen use, helping consumers choose which is best. “I believe our materials are really consistent in suggesting that people use sunscreen as an important piece of their arsenal,” she says.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and Independent Women’s Forum.