Is Your Sunscreen Safe?

mother applying sunblock to little girl's back

Did you know that research shows that 97% of Americans have toxic sunscreen chemicals in their blood? Anything that you put on your skin can enter your bloodstream, and most sunscreens have ingredients that are known to cause harm to people and aquatic life within just one hour of application.

Here’s how to find a sunscreen that is safe and non-toxic for both you and the life in the ocean.

If you have sensitive skin, you know never to blindly trust the chemicals in most cosmetics and skin care products. However, after reading the back of every sunscreen bottle at the natural food store, it turns out that most of the so-called “green” and “organic” brands had at least one highly questionable chemical ingredient in them!

Why should anyone have to trade short-term protection for long-term harm?

Beware Petrochemical Ingredients

Most FDA-approved petrochemical-based sunscreens include one or more of the following:

  • Octylmethoxycinnamate
  • Oxybenzone
  • P-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ensulizole
  • Emcasule
  • Homosalate
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octyl dimethyl PABA
  • Octyl salicylate
  • Sulisobenzone
  • Trolamine salicylate
  • Avobenzone, also known as Parsol 1789
  • Tterephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid, also known as Mexoryl SX.

Because they are applied to your skin, all of the petrochemical-based sunscreens are absorbed into your bloodstream in amounts higher than any other petrochemical contaminant found in our air, water or food.

Petrochemical-based sunscreens can have side effects because many mimic estrogen’s effects in our bodies. They also don’t biodegrade, and therefore accumulate in the watershed everywhere we swim, damaging aquatic ecosystems and coral reefs.

All of these petrochemical ingredients are cumulatively toxic, and by using them again and again—sometimes every day—you trade UV damage for chemical damage in the long term.

In fact, a 2000 Swedish study concluded that higher rates of melanoma occurred in those who used sunscreen versus those who did not.

Parents need to know that NONE of the petrochemical sunscreen ingredients listed above are FDA approved for use on children and babies. In fact, none of these compounds are tested for SPF on children’s skin, so products that use these ingredients and are marketed as “baby” formulas are misleading you.

Unfortunately, these petrochemicals are found in virtually all major brand names, and even in many of the “eco” brands found at the health food store.

No one should have to choose between skin cancer and breast cancer!

Mineral Sunscreens

There are two FDA-approved mineral sunscreens: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Zinc Oxide is the only ingredient approved for use on babies and children, and is also the main ingredient in most diaper creams.

Zinc oxide is better than titanium dioxide in sunscreens for the following reasons:

  1. Zinc oxide has a broader UVA and UVB absorbance spectrum than Titanium dioxide, so it provides better UVA protection.
  2. Zinc oxide is safer because it creates fewer free radicals than Titanium dioxide.
  3. Zinc oxide is the only active ingredient approved for use on babies under 6 months of age; Titanium dioxide is not.
  4. Zinc oxide is made from a critical mineral nutrient that’s also found in many multivitamins; Titanium dioxide is made from a heavy metal that is toxic when ingested.

Micronized vs. Nanoparticles

Nanoparticles are defined as having a diameter of less than 100 nanometers, (0.1 millionth of a meter) which is about the size of a virus. Micronized particles, on the other hand, are defined as having a diameter of less than 100 microns, (0.1 thousandth of a meter) which is about the width of a human hair.

Micronized mineral sunscreens have been on the market for decades, and have a lot of supportive data on their safety. Nanoparticle mineral sunscreens, however, are very new and have been marketed by chemical manufacturers as an innovative way to make their formulas less whitening on your skin.

The problem with nano sunscreens is that the long-term safety of these particles is unknown, and some recent scientific studies, including one published in Scientific American, have demonstrated these particles can damage aquatic ecosystems when they wash off of your body. Other potential issues include elevated skin penetration and free radical creation in the body.

Manufacturers often market their nanoparticle sunscreens under the “micronized” umbrella, since technically nanoparticles have been micronized very finely. This is dishonest marketing. Unfortunately, the only way you can tell if a manufacturer is not using nanoparticles, is if they say it’s “Non-Nano.” Look for that on the label.

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Toxic Additives

Many sunscreens—even the ones without petrochemical or nano-sized ingredients—can have questionable or toxic additives. For example, synthetic vitamin A, sometimes called Retinyl palmitate or retinol, is added to many sunscreens and cosmetic products as an antioxidant, anti-aging ingredient.

Unfortunately Retinyl palmitate has photo-toxic and photocarcinogenic properties, according to several studies. In other words, when exposed to sunlight, the synthetic vitamin A in sunscreens and cosmetics does the opposite of what it is supposed to do, and becomes harmful to your skin, potentially encouraging the growth of tumors.

Many sunscreens also contain preservatives, parabens and other chemical additives you really want to avoid consuming. After all, skin is very absorbent, and anything you put on your skin goes directly into your bloodstream. (Which is precisely why some medicines are administered in patch form.)

These ingredients also can also have a devastating effect on coral reefs and other aquatic life.

Is Sunscreen Really Necessary?

The answer is “maybe,” and only when you can’t control how much sun you are exposed to. For instance, if you work outside all day as part of your job, if you plan on spending the whole day at the beach, or if you need to protect sensitive areas of your face, like around your eyes, that are particularly susceptible to photo-aging, it’s smart to use a safe, non-toxic sunscreen.

Even smarter still, is to have an umbrella, a hat, and protective clothing.

But under most circumstances, you don’t want to block your body’s ability to produce vitamin D, and should go without sunscreen. The fact is, getting some sun exposure every day is one of the best things you can do for your health.

Sun exposure allows your body to naturally produce your own supply of vitamin D, and experts agree that this is the best form of vitamin D you can get.

Moderate daily sun exposure has also been shown to help protect against as many as 16 different types of cancer, including; skin (yes, ironically), breast, colon, endometrial, esophageal, ovarian, bladder, gallbladder, gastric, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, and renal cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, followed nearly 30,000 women over 20 years, and found results that suggest mortality rate is higher for people who stay out of the sun than those who don’t.

Optimizing your vitamin D levels can literally cut your risk of several cancers in half!

You’ll need to expose more than just your face and hands to get optimal vitamin D though. In fact, you really need to expose your face, full arms, hands, legs from knee down and feet—or about 40% of your body—to get enough of this essential vitamin. But do the best you can.

The point to remember is that once your skin turns the lightest shade of pink (if you’re lighter skinned), or begins to darken just a shade (if you are darker skinned), it’s time to get out of the sun or cover up. This could be just a few minutes for some fair-skinned people, or up to 15-20 minutes for darker skinned people.

Past this point of exposure, your body does not produce any more vitamin D, and you’ll begin to get sun damage, and sunburn is never good for your health.

Supplementing with microalgae such as spirulina, astaxanthin, and chlorella or blue-green algae can make the body naturally more resistant to sunburn (and help heal one quickly, too!).

Astaxanthin has extraordinary antioxidant powers to protect your skin against sunburn, and supplementing with 4 mg a day for at least a month can potentially double (at least) the time you can ordinarily spend in the sun without burning.

Astaxanthin is fat soluble, so it must be taken with a healthy meal that includes plenty of fat or you just won’t absorb it.

You Might Also Be Interested in…

How to Find a Safe Sunscreen

When looking for a safe, non-toxic sunscreen, you want to look for the following three labels:

  • Reef-Safe or Reef-Friendly
  • Non-Nano
  • Zinc Oxide

You might also look for the Cruelty Free, Fragrance Free, or Gluten Free labels, if those are concerns for you.

Once you find a sunscreen that meets those criteria, you can search the Skin Deep Sunscreen Database for sunscreen brands that score a 1 for lowest harm.

We usually buy Badger Sunscreen because it has non-whitening, micronized zinc oxide, smells delicious, and is made by a small, family-run business. I can also get it at my local grocery store. Badger is well-rated by the Skin Deep Sunscreen Database as a 1 for lowest harm.

Badger Sunscreen contains:

  1. Non-Nano, Uncoated Zinc Oxide 22.5%
  2. Organic Sunflower seed oil,
  3. Organic Beeswax,
  4. Organic Seabuckthorn fruit extract,
  5. Organic Jojoba seed oil,
  6. Organic Orange peel oil,
  7. Organic Tangerine peel oil
  8. Vanilla fruit extract
  9. Tocopherol (Sunflower Vitamin E)

Other family-friendly sunscreens that rated 1 for safety in EWG’s sunscreen database include:

Whatever sunscreen you choose to use this summer, the Skin Deep Sunscreen Database is a great resource for checking its safety and impact on the environment.

Also check out the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, made by the same great non-profit. It’s a great resource for researching the safety of all your make-up, skin care and beauty products, so you can be a wise consumer, and choose personal care items that will protect the healthy of your family and the environment.

Updated June 1, 2023.




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