Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

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Photo of exclamation sign written with sunscreen on body

Summer is here and warm weather brings more time in the sun… and more sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology says “Sunscreen use can help prevent skin cancer by protecting you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays,” and recommends that you use sunscreen every day if you’re going to be outside.

Sunscreen is unlike other body care products, however. Unlike your body wash or lotion, sunscreen is used in large amounts and reapplied to your skin often. Dermatologists generally follow the “1 ounce, enough to fill a shot glass” guideline for how much sunscreen you should apply and then advise reapplying every two hours or after swimming or sweating.  And that means the ingredients in your sunscreen have a much greater chance of ending up in your body, too.

The active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms, chemical or mineral filters.

The Scary Side Effects of Chemical Sunscreens

The most commonly used sunscreens on the market contain chemical filters. Think of the rows and rows of sunscreens that line the shelves of your local market or drugstore. These “conventional” sunscreen products include one or more of a limited amount of FDA-approved active ingredients, including:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate

Because most of these approved ingredients only filter a portion of the UV spectrum, most manufacturers typically combine one to six of these chemical ingredients together to achieve a broader degree of UV protection.

A Cause for Concern: Oxybenzone

One of the chemicals found in nearly 65% of conventional sunscreens is oxybenzone. The CDC has detected oxybenzone in more than 96% of the American population, based on a sampling of children and adults, and even higher levels in participants who reported being sunscreen users.

Oxybenzone can cause allergic skin reactions and studies suggest it’s a hormone disruptor, as well. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a large number of studies in animals and cells have shown that several common sunscreen chemicals (including oxybenzone) affect reproduction and development.

The Trouble with Inactive Ingredients

Conventional sunscreens not only contain a small handful of active chemical filters, but they often contain inactive ingredients that should be examined as well. The inactive ingredients typically make up 50% – 70% of a sunscreen.

One commonly used inactive ingredient is methylisothiazolinone, a preservative that’s been found listed on the labels of 94 different sunscreens. Methylisothiazolinone was named the “allergen of the year” in 2013 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society, and has been shown in lab studies to be a skin sensitizer or allergen.

Methylisothiazolinone is allowed in U.S. products, but the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety concluded that no concentration of MI could be considered safe in leave-on cosmetic products in 2015.

A Warning About Vitamin A

Antioxidants and botanical extracts are commonly added to both chemical and mineral sunscreens. These antioxidants, such as vitamin A, C, and E, are added in an attempt to reduce skin damage and reverse free radical damage caused by UVA rays. Antioxidants are also used to stabilize active ingredients in sunscreens.

But emerging research is showing that one of these “natural” ingredients may be doing more harm than good.

Retinyl palmitate is a form of Vitamin A that is found in approximately 14% of beach and sports sunscreens, 15% of moisturizers with SPF, and 6% of SPF-rated lip products, according to the EWG’s 2017 sunscreen database.

In 2011, the NTP Board of Scientific Counselors concluded that two forms of vitamin A- retinyl palmitate and retinoic acid, sped development of cancerous lesions and tumors on UV-treated animals. In 2012, the FDA launched a follow-up study and U.S. government scientists confirmed the findings using the same animal model.

At least seven independent studies suggest that retinyl palmitate may actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin and exposed to sunlight.

Because of these findings, the EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens and other personal care products containing vitamin A (retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinoic acid) if you’re going to be out in the sun.

Mineral Sunscreens: A Safer Solution

There is a safer alternative to chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Typically found in the form of nanoparticles, zinc and titanium sunscreens are known as “physical” sunscreens.

Mineral sunscreens are effective immediately. They begin working the moment you apply them; reflecting the sun’s rays like a mirror. Conventional chemical sunscreens typically require a waiting time of 15-30 minutes before sun exposure so that the UV filters have time to soak into your skin and form a protective barrier.

Nanoparticles in sunscreen don’t penetrate the skin. According to the EWG, a large number of studies have found no evidence that zinc oxide particles can cross the skin and enter the bloodstream. Both FDA and European Union sponsored studies have concluded that nanoparticles don’t penetrate the skin and do not pose any health risks.

While mineral sunscreens pose few health concerns, some forms of mineral sunscreen may be safer than others.

Nanoparticles may cause lung damage when inhaled. The International Agency for Research on Carcinogens has classified titanium dioxide as a possible carcinogen when inhaled in large doses. Because of this risk, the EWG recommends that consumers avoid spray or powdered sunscreens.

Mineral Sunscreens are Better for the Environment

Mineral sunscreens are not only safer for you, they’re also safer for the environment.

Researchers have found oxybenzone concentrations on nearshore reefs around the world are commonly between 100 part per trillion and 100 parts per billion — well within the range of being a significant environmental threat.

Researchers have found that oxybenzone found in chemical sunscreens induces coral bleaching and damages coral DNA. They also found that oxybenzone acts as an endocrine disrupter for coral. Not only is oxybenzone toxic for coral, it also has shown to be toxic to algae, sea urchins, fish, and mammals. According to researcher Craig Downs, Ph.D, oxybenzone “can result in gender shifts in fish, in which male fish take on female attributes, while females have reduced egg production and embryo hatchings. In mammals it has been demonstrated to be a potential mutagen and to exhibit procarcinogenic activity.”

The National Parks Service has stated that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually, and recommends choosing “reef friendly” sunscreens containing natural mineral ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide.

How to Choose a Safer Sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen is important to protect your skin from sunburns, sun damage, and skin cancer. Because sunscreen goes onto your body and can be absorbed into your skin, ingredients matter.

When selecting a sunscreen look for:

  • Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
  • Sunscreens in cream, stick, or lotion form.


  • Chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and other chemical UV filters.
  • Vitamin A in all its forms.
  • Spray sunscreens to avoid inhaling nanoparticles.

The AAD states that using sunscreen, seeking shade and wearing protective clothing are all important behaviors to reduce your risk of skin cancer. Choose a mineral sunscreen in a cream form and you can be sure that you’re also protecting yourself – and the environment – against potentially toxic chemicals. Use a safer sunscreen and enjoy a worry-free summer filled with fun in the sun.