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. In this guide, we look at sunscreen ingredients to avoid, the risks of too much sunscreen, natural sunscreen alternatives, the best non-toxic sunscreen, and more.
The Health Risks of Sunscreen & Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
There are compelling reasons to shield yourself from the sun. According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma (skin cancer) cases in the United States has tripled since the 1970s, and one of the main risk factors for melanoma is too much sun exposure. Studies have shown that UV radiation from the sun makes it much more likely that a person will develop the deadly cancer.
Because of this, most sunscreens use chemical UV filters, which are rapidly absorbed by the skin, your body’s largest organ. Several of these chemical UV filters appear to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they may interfere with your hormones, which then can then create all sorts of other chronic health issues and diseases. 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 (compromising your immune system and ability to fight off infections)
This is all pretty concerning. It’s especially troublesome in the case of sunscreen for children and babies, who are much more vulnerable to toxic chemicals. What’s more, many baby sunscreens advertised as “organic” and “natural” actually contain some of the most harmful chemicals. So to clear things up, we’ll lay out the sunscreen ingredients to avoid:
- Oxybenzone: This is a very common ingredient in sunscreen and 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.
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA): This ingredient has been linked to allergic dermatitis and can be toxic at high doses.
- Octinoxate: This chemical can cause moderate to severe skin allergies, and has been shown to alter hormone function. Even scarier is that it’s been detected in breast milk, meaning extra vulnerable infants are exposed.
- Homosalate: Studies have shown that homosalate can mimic hormones and alter the endocrine system.
- Octisalate: While there aren’t any studies conclusively tying this ingredient to health risks, according to the EWG there is also insufficient data to deem it totally safe. A study from the FDA found that those who had used sunscreen containing octisalate had blood levels of the ingredient that were 10 times the cutoff for exposure.
- Benzene: An online pharmacy and pharmaceutical testing company recently detected high levels of benzene in 27% of the sunscreen and after-sun care products that they tested, with some containing levels up to three times the FDA limit. According to the CDC, the WHO, and other organizations, benzene is known to cause cancer and can be absorbed through the skin. (Side note: the same company also found high levels of benzene in several different brands of hand sanitizer that consumers snapped up during the early days of the pandemic.)
- Octocrylene: Though octocrylene itself doesn’t harm human health, researchers recently found that as it ages over time (either on a shelf in the store or in your home), it degrades to form the dangerous compound benzophenone. Benzophenone is a known endocrine disruptor and carcinogen, and octocrylene itself, while not harmful to humans, is a potential allergen and isn’t biodegradable. The researchers found octocrylene in various different popular brands — think L’Oreal, Coppertone, Neutrogena, and many more — including some sunscreens meant for kids.
The FDA recently proposed new sunscreen regulations to better protect consumers, including requiring that all products with an SPF of 15 or above provide protection against UV/UVB rays. These changes are a step in the right direction, but they don’t do much about the dangers described above. One potentially positive effect is that the proposal would require that the active ingredient be listed on the front of the label, which would make it easier for savvy consumers to know if items purported to be “natural” and “organic” actually contain some of the sunscreen ingredients to avoid.
The risks of certain sunscreen ingredients don’t stop with human health: chemicals commonly used in sunscreens have been shown to not only disrupt human hormones, but also harm the environment. According to the EWG, oxybenzone damages 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 caused is so serious that in May 2018, Hawaii passed a bill prohibiting the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are used in at least 70% of sunscreens today. In July 2019, the US Virgin Islands passed a similar bill, banning all but coral-safe sunscreens beginning in March 2020. Florida considered a similar ban, but their governor recently signed a controversial bill preventing local governments from imposing these bans. California is still considering enacting a ban that would prohibit all but coral-safe sunscreen.
The Dangers of Too Much Sunscreen
While the risk of skin cancer is real, and the regulations above are designed to ensure consumers have adequate sun protection, there’s also the reverse argument: that too much sunscreen is bad, because we need more sun exposure for our health.
An increasing body of research supports the notion that we need a certain amount of sunlight, and that guidelines encouraging people to stay out of the sun as much as possible are actually dangerous. One striking study of 30,000 women over the course of 20 years showed that those who avoided the sun had a whole host of health issues, including autoimmune disease and life-threatening cancers. Other research has shown that sun exposure can lower blood pressure and protect against cardiovascular disease. All of this means that too much sunscreen could actually be harming your health rather than protecting it.
One of the main reasons that sun exposure is good for your health is because it helps your body produce and absorb vitamin D, a vital nutrient. When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it turns cholesterol into vitamin D that your body can use effectively. While supplements can help improve vitamin D levels, evidence suggests that they can’t replace sun exposure.
Vitamin D plays an important role in many aspects of your health, and nearly 40% of Americans are vitamin D deficient — perhaps in part because of too much sunscreen use. This matters a lot, because vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a ton of health issues, including osteoporosis, cancer, and even depression. As the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of vitamin D has come to light once again, as low levels of vitamin D have been associated with more severe and more fatal cases of the virus. (Learn more about vitamin D and your health in this in-depth article.)
Non-Toxic Sunscreen and Natural Sunscreen Alternatives
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, opt first for natural sunscreen alternatives. 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? All of these can be major mitigating factors that protect you from the sun without putting unsafe ingredients into your body.
You can also be wise about when you get your sun exposure. For instance, studies have shown that the sun is strongest and your body is best at synthesizing vitamin D around noon. This means that you can spend less time in the sun (ie, have less risk of skin damage) while still getting the sun exposure necessary for your health.
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? First off, keep in mind the importance of vitamin D and risks of too much sunscreen. But if you’re going to be in the direct sun for more than 30 minutes, you’ll need to take precautions to protect yourself from skin damage. The best choice is to go with the natural sunscreen alternatives above, but the next-best option is to choose a non-toxic sunscreen without any of the harmful chemicals listed above.
If you want a sunscreen that keeps you safe inside and out, you’ll need to look for a mineral-based product. This is important because these mineral sunscreens don’t penetrate the skin, and therefore can’t mess with your hormones. Of course, not penetrating your skin means that you can’t fully rub the sunscreen in, which means you could look 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 a non-toxic sunscreen that rubs in completely.
In terms of ingredients when looking for a non-toxic sunscreen, you should keep an eye out for active ingredients like:
- Zinc oxide
- Titanium dioxide (classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen to humans, but more research is needed)
For a full list of WellBe-approved non-toxic sunscreen (plus 1,500+ more researched and vetted items, from clean food brands to sleep aids to beauty products and more), check out the WellBe Non-Toxic Product Database.
One other important thing to note is that, regardless of ingredients, you should avoid buying spray sunscreen. According to the EWG, when you apply spray sunscreen, your body inhales any toxic chemicals that are in the spray. Your lungs are a faster highway to your bloodstream than your skin, so this can be more detrimental to your health than chemicals in sunscreen lotion. If you absolutely can’t give up spray sunscreen, try to spray it directly against the palm of your hand, away from your face, and then rub it on your body. This should at least minimize how many chemical particles are released into the air for you to inhale.
The WellBe Takeaway On Sunscreen and Your Health
Sunscreen is a tricky issue. It can be incredibly important for protecting your health, but it’s also not as safe as many people think. Here’s what to remember about using sunscreen safely:
- Sunscreen is absorbed into your skin, which is your largest organ. This means that if there are harmful ingredients in your sunscreen, they could do damage to your health.
- Most sunscreens use chemical UV filters, some of which have been shown to be endocrine disruptors. The main sunscreen ingredients to avoid are oxybenzone, PABA, octinoxate, and octisalate.
- Using too much sunscreen can also be harmful to your health, because some sun exposure is essential to your body’s ability to function. We need a certain amount of sunlight to maintain our health, and relying solely on vitamin D supplements isn’t an adequate substitute.
- Certain sunscreen ingredients have also been shown to harm marine life. Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands have banned these harmful sunscreens, and allow only coral-safe sunscreen.
- For sun protection, the safest move is to choose natural sunscreen alternatives, such as covering your body with clothing, wearing a hat, or staying in the shade.
- There are also non-toxic sunscreen options that don’t harm your health. Look for mineral-based products with ingredients like zinc and titanium dioxide, which aren’t absorbed into the skin. For a list of WellBe-recommended non-toxic sunscreen (plus 1,500+ more vetted and researched products), check out our Non-toxic Products Database.
- Regardless of ingredients, spray sunscreens should be avoided because the spray causes you to inhale ingredients, which then pass into your lungs and bloodstream quickly.
Do you have a favorite non-toxic sunscreen or natural sunscreen alternative? Tell us in the comments below!
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- Matta MK, et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical Trial JAMA. 2019;321(21):2082-2091.
- Downs, C. A. et al. Benzophenone Accumulates over Time from the Degradation of Octocrylene in Commercial Sunscreen Products. Chemical Research in Toxicology 2021 34 (4), 1046-1054.