While sunscreen is supposed to shield you from the ultimate buzzkills of summer—sunburn, premature aging, and a heightened risk of skin cancer—Consumer Reports recently revealed that some sun protection products aren't as effective as advertised. But now the state of sunscreen is looking even more dire: About 3 out of 4 products provide insufficient sun protection or contain potentially harmful ingredients, according to the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) just-released annual sunscreen guide, for which the organization assessed 750 different sunscreen formulas.
FWIW, the EWG only reviews ingredient labels and related research—they don't actually test these formulas, nor do they employ photo biologists or physicians to weigh in on their findings. This year, they're raising awareness about products that contain oxybenzone, a possible hormone disruptor and potential skin irritant that can be dangerous if inhaled, and vitamin A (listed as retinyl palminate, retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, or retinoic acid), which is said to heighten the risk of skins cancers upon sun exposure.
While it's possible to avoid these ingredients, don't start thinking sunscreens that have them do more harm than good. "The most important criteria in evaluating sunscreen is whether it protects you from skin cancer," explains Darrel Rigel, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. "At the end of the day, the data is very strong that sunscreen is effective, and that regular use lowers your risk of skin cancer and aging."
What's more, Dr. Rigel says there's really no reason to worry about sunscreen chemicals—at least so far as science is concerned. "The argument is that retinol thins the skin, which is how it rejuvenates it, and that this makes you more prone to cancer," he explains, adding that there's no clinical data strong enough to support this hypothesis. "We do the experiment every weekend with tens of millions of people using sunscreens that contain these ingredients," he notes—and people aren't dropping like flies (or walking off the beach looking suspiciously like lobsters).
And as for oxybenzone? The idea that it's harmful comes from a study involving lab rats who were fed unrealistically large amounts of oxybenzone. (Dr. Rigel estimates it would take a person 35 years of covering their entire body head to toe with sunscreen every single day to soak up as much oxybenzone comparatively as was given to the rats, and that it'd take the average sunscreen user—who uses half the recommended amount of sunscreen and covers only their face, arms and legs daily—235 years to rack up a similar risk.)
Luckily, the EWG isn't telling people to ditch sunscreen either. Instead, they're calling for consumers (hey, you!) to make informed decisions in the sunscreen aisle. (You can use the EWG's sunscreen database or iPhone or Android app to find the products they deem safest—but keep in mind Consumer Reports's thorough testing suggests all-natural formulas aren't the best defense against the sun.) They'd also like the Food and Drug Administration, the governing body responsible for declaring sun protection products safe for use, to implement more stringent guidelines for sunscreen. If their approach pans out, one day, you should be able to slap on any old sunscreen and know it will do its thing, no questions asked and no harm done—for sure.
In the meantime, experts agree that the most effective sunscreen is the one you're going to use. Other rules to live by: Stick with lotions instead of sprays to take the guesswork out of even application and prevent inhaling questionable fumes; stop pretending that you apply enough sunscreen to skirt out of reapplication at least every two hours, because "if you applied the right amount you'd be as white as a sheet of Xerox paper," according to Dr. Rigel—even if you use a crazy-high SPF; and invest in the smartest way to protect your skin: a cute cover-up, sunglasses, and a hat to protect your skin from the shade. Because no matter what science surfaces next, sunscreen isn't your only defense.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.