What Sunscreen is Safe? Understanding Healthy and Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

Posted July 30, 2019

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 cheap, yucky 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?

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 commonly found in big-name formulas that should make you think twice before applying to your skin.

What are the sunscreen ingredients to avoid?

Life would be so much easier if department stores labeled “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. There may be hope, though; in 2019, the FDA proposed 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 these 12 concerning ingredients.

Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients:


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, circulates throughout the body, and can negatively affect several bodily systems. When it sheds off our skin and makes its way into water, it causes terrible harm to the environment, too.

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 reef.

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.


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 since the FDA has not. According to their research, octinoxate is also found in mother’s milk, causes hormone-like activity, and leads to thyroid and behavioral alterations.

The FDA proposes that 12 ingredients commonly found in sunscreen need additional data from safety and efficacy testing. In addition to oxybenzone and octinoxate, the list includes:

  • Avobenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Ensulizole
  • Meradimate
  • Padimate O
  • Sulisobenzone

Steer clear of these 12 ingredients in order to avoid potential health risks. It’s best to shop chemical-free sunscreen altogether and purchase organic sunscreen made with mineral active ingredients instead.

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 sunscreen).

Comparing mineral vs. chemical sunscreen, chemical formulas are much harsher on skin and often trigger allergic reactions—especially to those with sensitive skin types prone to flare-ups. Chemical formulas pose health and environmental concerns, but the chemical spray formulas are even more dangerous for multiple reasons:

  1. Spray application is less effective than lotion, potentially resulting in missed spots and sunburns
  2. When you spray chemical sunscreen, you risk inhaling toxins and polluting the environment
  3. 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 safe sunscreen are derived from two naturally-occurring minerals: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

  • Zinc Oxide – A naturally reflective material, zinc oxide sunscreen is one of the most effective sun protectors available and does an excellent job of blocking out both short and long UVA and UVB rays. Its antimicrobial properties help heal wounds more quickly, so it’s incredibly safe to apply to your skin.

It’s 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 formulas 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.

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 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 15 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

Take care of your skin this summer—and all year long!—with safe sunscreen from Colorescience and follow along for the best advice on how to keep skin vibrantly beautiful.


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