What Sunscreen Is Safe to Use? 11 Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
Sunscreen is intended to keep skin safe, so how can it be dangerous to apply? If this is the first time you’re learning about the potential dangers of certain sunscreen, the news is probably confusing. Most consumers place their trust in products that promise to protect the health and vitality of the largest human organ—our skin—so it seems counterintuitive that, at the same time, we need to be wary of the armor we choose to shield us from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
The truth of the matter is that not all brands are created the same. Many people believe that they’re doing a good, responsible thing when they slather on UV protection, but unless you’re applying safe sunscreen, you might be hurting yourself and the environment.
Don’t believe us? We were also shocked to learn about the low cost and low quality stuff used as filler ingredients in big-name brands—but that’s what inspired us to build an entire line of healthy cosmetics that prioritizes safe sunscreen over fast profits.
Keep reading to learn more about what sunscreen is safe and which ingredients in chemical formulas you should avoid contact with. If you have a direct question, jump ahead using the links below, or read through end-to-end to ensure you don’t miss any details.
- Is sunscreen safe?
- What are the sunscreen ingredients to avoid?
- What’s the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen?
- What are the healthiest sunscreen ingredients?
- What is the most toxic sunscreen?
- What is the best sunscreen without harmful ingredients?
- How to safely protect your skin
- Find your favorite new sunscreen formula with safe ingredients
IS SUNSCREEN SAFE?
The question should be a no-brainer. You wear sunscreen to keep your skin safe from the sun, so it must be healthy to use, right? Wrong. While sunblock may provide UV protection and prevent you from getting burned, there are a number of ingredients—including oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone—commonly found in big-name formulas that should make you think twice before applying it to your skin.
WHAT ARE THE SUNSCREEN INGREDIENTS TO AVOID?
Life would be so much easier if department stores used labels like “non-toxic sunscreen” versus “toxic sunscreen”, but as it stands, consumers are tasked with figuring it out themselves. Unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has failed to set any modern standards for safe sunscreen. However, there may be hope; in 2019, the FDA proposed a new regulation to verify that sunscreens are safe and effective.
For now, though, you’ll need to read the labels on every product you pick up to see whether it contains any of the following concerning ingredients.
Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients
The FDA proposes that 11 ingredients commonly found in sunscreen need additional data from safety and efficacy testing. Chemicals to avoid in sunscreen include:
- Padimate O
Steer clear of these 11 ingredients in order to avoid potential health risks, such as endocrine disruption, reproductive issues, and more. It’s best to shop for chemical-free sunscreen altogether and purchase organic sunscreen made with mineral active ingredients instead.
We’ll dive deeper into the 11 ingredients mentioned above and provide side effects and key differences for each below.
When it comes to what sunscreen ingredients to avoid, oxybenzone is one of the most important to remember. This chemical makes the top of our list because it’s generally the most common ingredient found in chemical sunscreens—which is unfortunate because it’s widely considered to be the most toxic ingredient, too.
Oxybenzone is a problem because it’s readily absorbed by the skin, enters the bloodstream, and circulates throughout the body, which can negatively affect several bodily systems. Additionally, when it sheds off our skin and makes its way into the water, it can cause terrible harm to the environment.
Here are some facts about oxybenzone that should make you want to toss out anything you own containing it:
- The Center of Disease Control (CDC) states that 97% of the people tested had oxybenzone present in their urine, and scientists report various concentrations present in fish and waterways worldwide.
- The chemical is also present in breast tissues and breast milk and may induce pro-carcinogenic activities by facilitating the proliferation of cells that are receptive to estrogenic compounds
- Oxybenzone is linked to endocrine disruption and affects hormones by blocking them or mimicking them, throwing off the body’s hormonal balance.
- It causes toxicity to sperm development and sperm viability, has been shown to feminize male fish, and alter the development of breasts in adolescent females.
- It’s been shown to produce contact allergies and photoallergies, meaning reactions actually worsen in the sunlight, which is where you’re supposed to use it.
- Hawaii has recently passed legislation that bans chemical sunscreen containing oxybenzone due to the widespread, tragic coral reef bleaching and fish mortality the chemical has caused.
- Oxybenzone can react with chlorine, producing hazardous by-products that can concentrate in swimming pools and hot tubs—if you’ve ever seen the oily substance floating on top of bodies of water, then you know what we mean.
- Just one drop of oxybenzone in a six-and-half Olympic-sized pool of water is enough to damage coral reefs.
To recap, oxybenzone belongs nowhere near safe sunscreen formulas because once it’s absorbed through the skin, it can lead to hormonal imbalance, reproductive harm, skin reactions, photoallergies, and might even be linked to breast cancer. On top of that, when it washes off our bodies and, travels into water, it causes devastating harm to delicate ecosystems—and potentially children swimming in the pool.
Octinoxate is a UV filter that can be absorbed into the skin. This chemical is included with oxybenzone as a “UV filter with higher toxicity concerns” in Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Guide to Sunscreens—a guide that rates the hazards and efficacy of sunscreens. According to their research, octinoxate is also found in mother’s milk, causes hormone-like activity, and leads to thyroid and behavioral alterations.
Avobenzone is typically found in a variety of chemical sunscreens, including lip balms with SPF and baby sunscreen. However, despite how common this ingredient is, it may not be very effective on its own. In fact, sunlight can cause it to break down if it doesn’t have another chemical to stabilize it, making it easier for the sun’s rays to penetrate your skin.
Homosalate is a chemical commonly found in sunscreens and several products containing SPF. It’s used in chemical sunscreens because it can absorb ultraviolet (UV) rays, effectively preventing them from reaching your skin. However, in June 2021, the European Commission released a statement deeming homosalate unsafe in concentrations higher than 10%, thus recommending that only 1.4% be used in sun-blocking cosmetics. Currently, the FDA allows a Homosalate concentration of 15%.
Octocrylene is a sunscreen additive often used in combination with avobenzone to neutralize the sun’s UV rays. However, octocrylene can also break down, causing it to develop into a harmful chemical known as benzophenone. This chemical is on the California Proposition 65 list, meaning exposure can increase the likelihood of cancer. According to Yale Medicine, approximately 2,400 sunscreen products have octocrylene in them.
Cinoxate prevents the breakdown of other unstable chemicals in sunscreen while also absorbing potent UV rays.
When the chemical ensulizole makes direct contact with sunlight, it can produce something known as free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules that steal the electrons of nearby cells. This can lead to DNA damage, nerve cell injuries, and other health issues.
Meradimate (methyl anthranilate) is one of the chemicals under FDA review and is currently banned from being used in Japan and Europe. Other countries, such as Canada, have classified meradimate as a substance that’s suspected to be harmful to both humans and the environment. A study showed that methyl anthranilate releases reactive oxygen species, or free radicals, when exposed to light.
Padimate O is a byproduct of para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)—a once-common sunscreen ingredient that can be poisonous in large amounts and is no longer in use because of allergic dermatitis and photosensitivity issues. Although padimate O is a derivative of PABA, it still poses several health risks, including damage to DNA due to free radicals and allergic reactions.
Sulisobenzone (benzophenone-4) is a sunscreen ingredient with a “fair” rating at EWG that can cause irritation in both the skin and eyes and disrupt endocrine production. While sulisobenzone doesn’t get absorbed into the skin as much as other compounds do, it can cause other chemicals to penetrate your skin more deeply.
While the list above can be overwhelming, it’s important to remain knowledgeable about the effects of harmful sunscreen ingredients and recognize which sunscreen chemicals to avoid.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHEMICAL AND MINERAL SUNSCREEN?
Chemical sunscreen works like a sponge; the active ingredients are absorbed by the skin, which then convert UV rays to heat. Healthy, mineral sunscreen works like a shield; the active ingredients sit on top of the skin and refract the sun’s UV rays (which is why they are also called physical sunscreens).
When comparing mineral vs. chemical sunscreen, chemical formulas were notably much harsher on the skin and often triggered allergic reactions—especially to those with sensitive skin types prone to flare-ups. Chemical formulas also pose health and environmental concerns, but the chemical spray formulas are even more dangerous for multiple reasons:
- Spray application is less effective than lotion, potentially resulting in missed spots and sunburns.
- When you spray chemical sunscreen, you risk inhaling toxins and polluting the environment.
- Many chemical sunscreens contain flammable ingredients, such as alcohol, and the FDA advises consumers to stay away from open flames if used, even after the initial application.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTHIEST SUNSCREEN INGREDIENTS?
Protecting yourself from the sun is imperative, but that doesn’t mean you should have to expose yourself to toxins, risk your personal health, and pollute the environment while you’re at it. Shop SPF from Colorescience, made only with natural, safe sunscreen ingredients—and never with any of those nasty, synthetic, hard-to-pronounce chemicals.
The active ingredients found in our mineral sunscreens are derived from two naturally occurring minerals: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
- Zinc Oxide – As a naturally reflective material, zinc oxide sunscreen is one of the most effective sun protectors available. It does an excellent job of blocking out both short and long UVA and UVB rays. Its antimicrobial properties also help heal wounds more quickly, so it’s incredibly safe to apply to your skin.
Our unique formula is nearly invisible to the naked eye—meaning it won’t make you look chalky when applied—and it’s non-comedogenic, so you don’t need to worry about clogging pores like those other greasy sunscreens tend to do.
- Titanium Dioxide – This mineral is also invisible after application, non-comedogenic, and very gentle on sensitive skin. Titanium dioxide sunscreen does a better job at blocking short-wave UVA and UVB rays, so it’s a great choice for casual, daily sun exposure.
Colorescience offers a number of skincare and makeup products packed with safe sunscreen ingredients, which makes it effortless to protect your delicate complexion, prevent the signs of aging, and look radiant every day.
WHAT IS THE MOST TOXIC SUNSCREEN?
As mentioned earlier, the majority of chemical sunscreens have ingredients that can potentially harm your health. While there are 11 ingredients in total that the FDA is currently investigating, you may be wondering what the most toxic sunscreen formulas are.
There are several brands in the United States that create sunscreens, many of which feature one or more ingredients pending FDA research as an active ingredient in their formulas. According to the FDA, active ingredients are components that are proactively working to prevent diseases. In the case of chemical sunscreens, active ingredients are trying to minimize the likelihood of sun-related health problems.
If you see any of the 11 toxic chemicals listed as an active ingredient, it’s best to put the sunscreen back on the shelf and select a sunscreen that’s just as effective without them.
Which Sunscreen Ingredients Are Bad for the Environment?
Not only can chemical sunscreen ingredients negatively impact your health, but they can also harm the aquatic ecosystem of our oceans. According to Consumer Reports, common sunscreen chemicals—including oxybenzone and octinoxate—are harmful to coral reefs, fish, shrimp, and sea urchins. Currently, Hawaii and Florida have passed legislation to prevent brands from selling sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate.
What Ingredients to Avoid in Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin?
Some sunscreen ingredients can worsen symptoms of certain skin conditions, causing painful flare-ups, stinging, and itchy skin. Ingredients that can cause adverse skin reactions include alcohol, fragrances, preservatives, and chemical filters, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone.
Colorescience’s collection of mineral sunscreens feature only two natural active ingredients—zinc oxide and titanium oxide—making this a great sunscreen alternative for those with sensitive skin.
What Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid When Pregnant?
It’s always important to wear sunscreen, especially when pregnant since you can be more prone to brown spots and melasma. However, chemical sunscreen can be absorbed into your bloodstream, finding its way to your growing baby. If you’re an expecting mother, sunscreen ingredients to avoid include oxybenzone and avobenzone.
WHAT IS THE BEST SUNSCREEN WITHOUT HARMFUL INGREDIENTS?
With so many harmful sunscreen ingredients to look out for, it can be difficult to find a safe and effective sunscreen. If you’re struggling, here are a couple of key points to help you choose the best non-toxic sunscreen for you:
- Use a mineral sunscreen to avoid toxic sunblock ingredients.
- Protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays with a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
- Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
- Make sure the sunscreen is water-resistant if you’re planning on swimming, you sweat easily, or will be participating in a water-related activity.
At Colorescience, we carry an array of mineral sunscreens that are specifically made with various lifestyles and skin types in mind. Whether you want primers with SPF or a Total Protection™ Face Shield, Colorescience has you covered. Plus, all Colorescience mineral sunscreens are cruelty-free, reef-safe*, and are made with natural zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
You can take our skin quiz to help you find the best non-toxic sunscreen for you today.
HOW TO SAFELY PROTECT YOUR SKIN
Learning what sunscreen is safe—and what chemicals may be hazardous—is the first step towards protecting the health of your skin, but don’t stop there. Keep your complexion glowing by following these tips on safe sun protection:
- Read labels to check for dangerous chemicals found in widespread sunscreens.
- Avoid spray-on sunscreen products to ensure the ingredients cannot be inhaled.
- Shop organic, healthy sunscreen formulas that are gentle on skin (and on the environment).
- Verify your sunscreen offers broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Aim to apply a minimum of SPF 30 every day, no matter what.
- The FDA warns that excessively high SPF claims give consumers a false sense of protection, so be skeptical of anything labeled over 60.
- Apply safe sunblock liberally and evenly 30 minutes prior to sun exposure.
- Reapply every 2 hours, or sooner if in contact with water or sweat.
- Cover your skin with shade or long-sleeve clothing.
- Plan around the sun and limit your exposure at its peak height between 10 AM – 2 PM.
FIND YOUR FAVORITE NEW SUNSCREEN FORMULA WITH SAFE INGREDIENTS
Wearing sunscreen every day is important, but what’s equally as important is using a sunscreen that’s free from harmful chemicals. Remember, when choosing a sunscreen, make sure that it doesn’t contain any of the 11 ingredients currently being investigated by the FDA, and opt for a mineral sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the main ingredients. Trust us, your skin will thank you.
Check out our selection of mineral sunscreens to reflect the sun’s potent rays away from your skin instead of having to absorb harmful chemicals.