Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Harm Than Good?

Don’t get burned by what’s in your sunscreen. Put these expert tips to work and you won’t need to shun the sun.

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If you’re careful to take care of your skin, slathering on the sunscreen is probably one of your daily rituals — especially during the summer. But you’re not alone if you’ve become a bit, let’s say concerned, about the ingredients and safety of your go-to weapon against sun damage, sunburns, and (hopefully) skin cancer.

One go-to resource has been Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has studied the sometimes-icky ingredients in conventional sunscreens since 2007. Wellness experts like Dr. Jeremy Wolf, ND, the lead wellness advisor for LuckyVitamin.com, which sells dozens of brands of vetted sunscreens, have a lot to say on the topic as well. We consulted both to explore why you might want to take another look at the sunscreen in your beach or pool bag.

Why should we care about what’s in our sunscreen?

“What we put on our skin is eventually absorbed into our body, and new research shows that some chemicals in sunscreens can speed the rate as which cells become malignant,” says Wolf. “So while we try to protect ourselves, using the wrong sunscreen could do more harm than good.”

This concern isn’t limited to sunscreens, either: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have very stringent standards for cosmetics. For example, the FDA places no restrictions on formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing ingredients in cosmetics or personal care products, while those same ingredients are banned in Japan and Sweden and strictly limited in others. According to the EWG’s latest sunscreen report, although the FDA released new rules in 2011 to forbid using the terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” on product labels, these products are still allowed to claim that they can help prevent skin cancer. But, EWG reports, there’s little scientific evidence to back that up — and meanwhile, melanoma rates have tripled in the past three decades.

If you’re the type who assumes you’re safe to play in the sun all day because you’re wearing sunscreen, you might want to reconsider. Or at least head for the shade during the sunniest parts of the day. Bonus: A cute sunhat is a trendy accessory!

What’s the difference between a chemical sunscreen and a natural one?

Natural sunscreens minimize exposure to harmful chemicals, are hypoallergenic, reflect UV rays instead of absorbing them, and are often ecofriendly, cruelty-free, and organic, according to Wolf. “In general, there are two types of sunscreens on the market: mineral sunscreens and chemical sunscreens,” he says. “Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation and converting it into small amounts of heat. These products tend to contain toxic chemicals, which may have side effects. Mineral sunscreens are sunscreens that use more natural ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and work by reflecting UV radiation. These ingredients are stable in sunlight, offer broad protection against both types of UV radiation, and don’t contain potentially harmful additives.”         

Looking for a natural option? Here are the ingredients to avoid

When it comes to screening what’s in your sunscreen, these five ingredients top Wolf’s do-not-use list. Here’s why he suggests avoiding them.

Oxybenzone. According to Wolf, this chemical absorbs ultraviolet rays from the sun, easily penetrates the skin, and acts like estrogen in the body. He reports that studies have found it can alter sperm count in animals and can also be associated with endometriosis in women.

Vitamin A. When taken as a supplement or used in night creams, Wolf says, vitamin A doesn’t seem to cause as much of a problem. However, when applied to the skin and exposed directly to sunlight, “retinyl palmitate,” a form of vitamin A commonly found in sunscreens, seems to speed the development of certain skin tumors, he says.

Octinoxate. Although it has relatively high rates of skin reactivity, the most troublesome effect of this product, according to Wolf, is hormone disruption. In animal studies, it altered the function of the reproductive system and thyroid gland.

Homosalate. Chemically-derived sunscreen often needs to penetrate deep into our skin layers to work, says Wolf. Homosalate helps sunscreen sink in. When this chemical builds up in our bodies, he says, it disrupts hormones like estrogen, androgen, and progesterone.

Avobenzone. Avobenzone offers the best UVA protection out of the chemical filters and is not as toxic as the other chemicals used in sunscreens, says Wolf. While there’s no evidence of hormone disruption, there are relatively high rates of skin reactivity and allergies to consider.

Mind the spray — sunscreen, that is

Spray sunscreens might be convenient and easy to use, but there are downsides, too. According to EWG, spray sunscreens cloud the air with tiny particles that may not be safe to breathe (hold your breath!). Another reason to avoid spray sunscreens, Wolf says, is that although they may work well, they also make it easier to miss spots, leaving you open to painful burns (yikes!). It can also be more difficult to know if you’ve applied enough, especially on a windy day.

Don’t rely just on sunscreen

You don’t have to rely solely on your sunscreen to protect your skin; Wolf has a few suggestions for keeping your body’s largest organ — your skin! — safe from the sun:

  • Protect your eyes. Choose wearing sunglasses with extra UV protection.

  • Check the time. The sun is at its strongest from 10 am to 2 pm; seek shade or cover up!

  • Look up the UV Index. The Environmental Protection Agency issues daily and hourly forecasts.

  • Know the signs. Avoid getting sunburned by understanding the signs of overexposure to the sun, such as redness, sore skin, blistering, and dehydration.

  • Help your body recover. Consider loading up on antioxidants after a day in the sun.

No matter what type of sunscreen you use, make sure to reapply it every two hours, or more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating. And keep an eye on your sunscreen’s expiration date; most sunscreens last up to 3 years but eventually lose their effectiveness.

Written by Aleigh Acerni
Based in Charlotte, NC, Aleigh Acerni is a writer and editor who has covered everything from green living and beauty to food and travel for Breathe, The Charlotte Observer, and Zagat, to name a few. When she's not meeting deadlines or chasing around her toddler daughter, she writes about natural and organic beauty on her blog, Indigo + Canary.