There’s perhaps no piece of health (or life) advice more universally accepted than “wear sunscreen.” And yet, it’s actually a whole lot more complicated than those two simple words might imply. Sure, sunscreen helps shield you against skin cancer and other harmful effects of the sun, but the truth is that not all sunscreens are created equal — and some might be seriously harmful to your health.
Here’s the deal: most sunscreens use chemical UV filters, which are rapidly absorbed in the skin, your body’s largest organ. Several appear to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they may interfere with your hormones. According to the World Health Organization, endocrine disruptors are suspected of being associated with:
altered reproductive function in males and females
increased incidence of breast cancer
abnormal growth patterns
neurodevelopmental delays in children
changes in immune function
The most widely used ingredient is oxybenzone, which has been linked to allergic skin reactions, endometriosis in women, and disruption of reproductive hormones — and the CDC has detected it in more than 96% of Americans. Yikes.
What’s more, these ingredients don’t just disrupt human hormones, they can act as endocrine disruptors that harm our environment as well. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), oxybenzone harms the DNA of coral larvae, leading to damage and deformation of the coral; it can also contribute to coral bleaching and coral death. The destruction is so serious that in May, Hawaii passed a bill prohibiting the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are used in at least 70% of sunscreens today.
So for the sake of the environment and your health, should you skip sunscreen altogether? Not exactly — but the EWG does recommend that you think of it as a last resort. Rather than reaching for the sunscreen as soon as you head for the door, think about what other options you have to limit your sun exposure: Can you wear long sleeves and/or pants? Pack a hat? Carry an umbrella? Find some shade? Go out during times when the sun isn’t so strong? All of these can be major mitigating factors that protect you from the sun without risking any unsafe ingredients.
But what about those days at the beach or sunny park picnics, or when it’s just too darn hot to wear much of anything? Don’t worry, there are sunscreens that keep you safe inside and out. Specifically, look for mineral-based products with ingredients like:
Titanium dioxide (classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen to humans, but more research is needed)
Avobenzone (safer then oxybenzone and octinoxate, but not as highly recommended as titanium dioxide & zinc oxide)
Mexoryl SX (safer then oxybenzone and octinoxate, but not as highly recommended as titanium dioxide & zinc oxide)
Because these mineral sunscreens don’t penetrate the skin — and therefore can’t mess with your hormones — some of them can leave you looking a bit like a ghost. We think it’s worth it, but if you’re not into that look, there’s hope: according to the Environmental Working Group executive summary, there has been a dramatic increase in mineral-only sunscreens since 2007 (more than doubling from 17% of products to 41%), which means there’s a much higher likelihood of finding one that rubs in completely.
So seek out one of these new brands, or just go with the ghost look — either way, your body will thank you.