The Scary Side of Sunscreen

The sun is shining and you’re about to make the responsible choice to slather on some sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful (but also warm and wonderful) UV rays. Even the smell of sunscreen elicits summertime nostalgia for many of us. However, safety concerns have been raised regarding some of the most common ingredients in traditional sunscreens.

It’s an unfortunate paradox: protect yourself from skin cancer and expose yourself to the harmful ingredients in the sunscreen or forego the sunscreen and potential chemical exposure to roll the dice with UV ray-related cancers like melanoma. Thankfully, there is a growing body of toxicity data to help guide decision-making when choosing how to protect your skin from the sun!

What’s wrong with my sunscreen?

Many of the most popular ingredients in sunscreen have received scrutiny for their toxicity towards humans and the environment. Oxybenzone is the compound that has achieved the most notoriety thus far after it was reported that it can be found in the blood of nearly 100% of Americans, including in breastmilk. Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in sunscreen because it absorbs damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays and is considered to provide broad-spectrum coverage, meaning it can protect skin from both UVB and short-wave UVA rays. Not only is oxybenzone exposure ubiquitous, but this chemical is also capable of disrupting hormone signaling in humans and is a common skin allergen for sensitive populations. Other common ingredients, such as octinoxate and homosalate, are also detectable in breastmilk and have both been reported to similarly disrupt hormones in humans.

A handy visual guide adapted from Environmental Working Group (EWG) showing the toxicity rankings of common sunscreen ingredients.

In addition to these human health concerns, there are also important environmental concerns to take into consideration. A recent review of the literature reported that common sunscreen ingredients (oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, among others) are detectable in nearly all water sources sampled from around the world and these chemicals are extremely difficult to remove from the water via traditional wastewater treatment. These chemicals have been detected in aquatic wildlife and have been linked to coral bleaching. In fact, Hawaii and Florida have recently passed legislation banning the use of sunscreens containing chemicals like oxybenzone to help protect precious marine ecosystems as well as improve human health.

Is sunscreen worth the risk?

YES. An estimated 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70 and regular daily use of sunscreen that is SPF 15 or greater reduces the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent. While the risks associated with some of the active ingredients of sunscreen are not ideal, it is probably better than foregoing sunscreen altogether. However, there are sunscreen-free options for protecting yourself from UV damage. For example, wearing SPF-rated long-sleeved clothing and wide-brimmed hats or simply avoiding excess sunlight exposure whenever possible can be lifestyle changes that reduce the need for sunscreen usage. It is important to note that both protective clothing and avoiding sun exposure can only do so much to protect your skin and that there will always be circumstances under which sunscreen is the most appropriate skin protectant to implement.

So what kind of sunscreen should I be using?

Sunscreens impart their UV protection through two main mechanisms: chemical and physical. Most of the troublesome sunscreen ingredients are chemical barriers to UV rays. The sunscreen ingredients that impart the best UV coverage and act as a physical barrier are mineral-based, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. So far, the existing toxicity data suggest that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sunscreens are relatively safe for us and for the environment!

Here is a visual guide to UV protection based on the sunscreen ingredients, shared from Reef Repair.

For more information to help your decision making on sunscreen protection, visit EWG’s page for a comprehensive guide!

Peer edited by Julia DiFiore.

Follow us on social media and never miss an article:




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *