In today’s political climate, it is always important to be vigilant about the information we consume. If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that our personal health decisions are often not immune to the confusion that pervades all facets of our lives. 

As the summer months roll around and more time is spent outdoors, sun protection becomes a consideration for all types of people. The Skin Cancer Foundation warns that skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis, affecting 1 in 5 Americans by the age of 70, more than all other cancers combined.

With ​about 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, the application of sunscreen is an essential practice of preventative care. But could proactive protection against the sun be causing more harm than the scorching rays? 

This is the narrative that has dominated the sunscreen industries for decades,  thanks to the efforts of activist groups. Unfortunately, many people have been scared into believing that sunscreen does more harm than good and they  instead opt for natural, less effective alternatives, or none at all. 

The harmful retreat from traditional sunscreen to at-home alternatives or expensive, boutique products endorsed by celebrities, or no protection at all has been fueled partially by The Environmental Working Group. EWG is an American activist group that publishes an annual report about the safety and efficacy of sunscreen products. Their most recent report attempts to deliver a devastating blow to most sunscreens on the market: 

EWG’s 2022 Guide to Sunscreens includes more than 1,850 sunscreens, and only about one in four products, or 500, meets our standards for adequate sun protection and avoids ingredients linked to known health harms.

For someone concerned with skin health, this report that only one in four products are safe for use sounds major alarm bells. 

But medical professionals are concerned about the findings of EWG’s report. Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, a professor and the chair of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., expresses concern about the severity of the shift away from sunscreen use:

“The facts we know are this: UV rays are a carcinogen as designated by the World Health Organization, and the connection between unprotected sun exposure and skin cancer is well documented,” Friedman said. He added that there is also solid scientific evidence that unprotected exposure to UV rays can accelerate skin aging and contribute to the development of fine lines, wrinkles, and sun spots.

Friedman worries that putting such definitive claims out in the public will potentially scare people off from using sunscreen. Sunscreens do have limitations, he says; but when they’re used appropriately, they’re a very important part of your overall sun protection plan. “There’s really no question: sunscreens will always play a very important role in how we protect people from the harmful effects of the sun.”

In addition to understating the harm of UV rays, other medical professionals take issue with the methods of the EWG study, which calls into question that validity of the findings as a whole:

“The study they cite is not a clinical study, rather a lab-based study, which doesn’t translate to human use.” 

The truth is clear: sunscreen saves lives and there are serious risks of forgoing it. Year after year, the fear-mongering of EWG has misled too many people away from proper sun protection for themselves and their families. That’s the real thing we should be alarmed about.