Two decades into the 21st century, we understand the absolute necessity of daily sunscreen to fight against dark spots, loss of elasticity, fine lines, wrinkles, sagginess, and those unforgiving sunburns. Moreover, it’s our most formidable ally against skin cancer.
But, and this is a big but, all sunscreens are not our knights in shiny armor. Sometimes, lurking inside your trusted SPF bottle are less-than-friendly ingredients.
Yes, we are talking about those harmful ingredients in sunscreens that can cause health concerns ranging from hormone disruption and cancer to DNA changes and allergies.
Thankfully, modern formulations offer safe alternatives. It’s simply a matter of checking product labels against a list of harmful ingredients.
To make this easier, I’ve dived into the world of dermatologists, general physicians, environmental specialists, and research papers. All so we can demystify this SPF puzzle.
Let’s identify these harmful ingredients in sunscreens and make safer choices. We can continue enjoying the sun, but let’s do so in an informed and healthy manner.
Chemical vs. physical sunscreens
To properly discuss harmful ingredients in sunscreens, we first need to understand that sunscreens are broadly classified as chemical or physical.
Chemical sunscreens absorb damaging UV radiation and convert it into harmless heat.
On the other hand, physical sunscreens (mineral sunscreens) operate as a protective barrier sitting on top of the skin, deflecting these harmful rays back into the atmosphere.
Both chemical and physical sunscreens come with their benefits and drawbacks, and each has certain ingredients that are best avoided. Let’s dive in!
Sunscreen ingredients to avoid: The chemical SPF version
While sunscreens are skincare superheroes, not all wear the perfect cape. Some harmful ingredients in sunscreens can enter the bloodstream and accumulate in the body in far higher concentrations than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s safety threshold.
They even show up in places like breast milk. Yikes!
Don’t want to deal with the health damage? Here are the chemical sunscreen ingredients to avoid.
Oxybenzone: The biggest troublemaker
Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) might effectively absorb UV rays, but it is definitely one of the most harmful ingredients in sunscreens and best kept at bay.
This chemical is linked to hormone disruption, allergic dermatitis, and cellular damage. Several studies have shown that oxybenzone can cause endocrine disruption and may increase the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis.
Moreover, when you swim or shower after applying sunscreen with oxybenzone, it enters the aquatic environment, where it bleaches our vibrant coral reefs. This process can eventually lead to coral death. It also accumulates in the tissues of various fish species and other marine creatures, affecting their reproduction and growth.
Because of environmental concerns, places like Palau, Aruba, Bonaire, and Hawaii have banned oxybenzone in sunscreens. Good move!
Octinoxate: Sunscreen’s secret saboteur
Another common culprit on top of the sunscreen ingredients to avoid list is octinoxate.
Once this UV filter gets under your skin (literally!), it’s been found hanging around in blood levels at 16 times above the proposed FDA safety threshold, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Animal studies have shown this sneaky chemical has a knack for messing with our hormones, particularly affecting metabolic and thyroid functions. And if that’s not enough, it can cause allergic reactions when it meets UV light.
Plus, like its cousin oxybenzone, octinoxate is no friend to our coral reefs and marine life — which has led to several places banning it outright.
Homosalate: The hormone hacker
Homosalate is another one of the most harmful ingredients in sunscreens that might wreak havoc on your hormonal balance. Research shows this hormone disruptor bio-accumulates in the body, disrupting the endocrine system and affecting your hormonal health.
The European Commission has raised eyebrows about it as well. They claim homosalate isn’t safe when used at concentrations up to 10%. Instead, they suggest keeping it to a maximum of 0.5% to avoid potential hormonal disruptions.
However, the FDA allows sunscreen makers to use it at levels up to 15% in the U.S. That’s quite a bit more!
So, when choosing a sunscreen, be mindful of its homosalate content and concentration. Better safe than sorry, right?
Octocrylene: All is not clear
Octocrylene is a chemical sunscreen ingredient that is still up for debate. Some studies suggest it could be a troublemaker, causing skin allergies and potentially messing with our hormones. Yet, the European Commission gave it a thumbs-up, saying concentrations up to 10% are generally safe.
But here’s the most crucial fact: Octocrylene levels can sneakily climb up when stored for a while.
So if you’re considering using sunscreen that has this chemical, make sure it’s fresh off the shelf and definitely not that tube from the bottom of last summer’s beach bag.
Methylisothiazolinone: The EU begs to differ
Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) is a preservative, but the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) had concerns about its use in leave-on cosmetics due to potential skin sensitization and allergic reactions. They have only cleared it for rinse-off products, and that too up to 15 ppm.
So, sunscreen? It’s a leave-on product, so MIT might be a concern. The EWG also links MIT to allergies and potential neurotoxicity. Still, the FDA allows this chemical in cosmetics, including sunscreens, if they’re “non-sensitizing.” In this skincare mystery, always remember, “Consumer, beware!”
Avobenzone: The jury’s still out!
Avobenzone is another one of the active ingredients whose safety in sunscreens is under debate. While the FDA considers it safe in SPF formulations, recent studies suggest it may interfere with the endocrine system, which regulates hormones.
Additionally, when exposed to sunlight, Avobenzone starts breaking down and, in this process, could release skin-damaging free radicals. Which is precisely the opposite that one wants from sunscreen. Right?
Sunscreen ingredients to avoid: The physical SPF version
As someone who is quite obsessive about skincare and sun exposure, I often turn to mineral sunscreens as a (usually) safer alternative to chemical ones. However, I’ve learned that not all mineral sunscreens are saints.
Time, then, to examine the sunscreen ingredients to avoid in physical SPF formulations.
Nanoparticles: Still up for debate
Ever been at the heart of a heated debate? That’s where scientists and dermatologists are on the safety quotient of nanoparticles in sunscreens. These tiny molecules, particularly titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles, have been causing quite a stir.
Why are nanoparticles considered harmful ingredients in sunscreen? They’re so tiny they could be absorbed through our skin into the bloodstream, potentially harming our cells and DNA.
On the flip side, other experts argue that we’re in a murky middle ground, saying that while there’s no solid evidence to label these nanoparticles as entirely safe, there’s no clear proof of harm either. Talk about mixed signals!
The International Agency for Research on Cancer adds to the puzzle, suggesting that inhaling titanium dioxide nanoparticles could be harmful. So, this would only apply to spray-on sunscreens that may get into the mouth or nostrils and not to topical products.
As a result, I’ve chosen to go the non-nano mineral sunscreens route, balancing safety and efficacy. But the debate is still a tie. So, the final decision on whether these are sunscreen ingredients to avoid? That’s up to you.
Ingredients common to both chemical & physical sunscreens
It’s all too easy to scan the list of ingredients on your sunscreen and feel lost in the maze of scientific terminology. However, a few of those names you often see in physical and chemical formulations, like parabens and phthalates, deserve a closer look because they may not be as innocent as they seem.
Parabens: The disruptive defender
Parabens ward off bacteria and mold in personal care items to make the products last longer.
However, they’ve been linked with hormonal imbalances and have been labeled potential endocrine disruptors by many studies. More alarmingly, some research hints at a possible connection to breast cancer.
As someone who’s already had a tryst with cancer, I’ve come to see these parabens as a no-go in my own sunscreen. But I’m not here to make that decision for you. I want to share the facts — finally, your skin, your rules. So, you should take your own call on whether or not this one is one of the sunscreen ingredients to avoid.
Phthalates: Performance enhancing… or not?
Phthalates enhance the performance of fragrances in many personal care products, including sunscreens. However, they have been associated with hormonal and developmental problems along with respiratory issues such as asthma and allergies — which puts them front and center as harmful ingredients in sunscreens that should be kept off our skin.
And the worst part? They often hide behind the term “fragrance” on ingredient lists, making them harder to spot.
Retinyl palmitate: Not so anti-aging after all
Retinyl palmitate might sound exotic or beneficial, like a form of vitamin A that promises to reduce signs of aging and enhance skin texture. However, there’s a darker side to this ingredient.
Studies have hinted at a heightened risk of skin cancer associated with retinyl palmitate, especially when applied to the skin and subsequently exposed to sunlight.
Seems ironic, right? Given that the primary job of your sunscreen is to protect you from the very same sun?
PABA: Keep out at all costs
PABA (Para-Aminobenzoic Acid) was a common sunscreen ingredient, but it has largely fallen out of favor due to its potential to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
While PABA is now rare in sunscreens, you should still be cautious and double-check ingredient labels. This one is right on top of the sunscreen ingredients to avoid at all times!
Triclosan: Banned but crops up sometimes!
Triclosan, an antibacterial agent, was also a staple in many skincare products, but recent findings have given it pause. The FDA cites studies indicating that triclosan may encourage antibiotic resistance. Besides this, it also winds up in our rivers and lakes, where it can harm aquatic life.
In 2016, the FDA banned triclosan from over-the-counter antiseptic washes. But the story gets a bit hazy here — it’s unclear if this ban extends to cosmetics. So, even as triclosan gets phased out, checking your sunscreen labels is smart. After all, there’s no harm in playing it safe, right?
Fragrance: A mixed cocktail
Fragrances in sunscreens, or any skincare product, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they make your products smell gorgeous, turning your skincare routine into a sensory experience. But on the other hand, this sweet-smelling ingredient isn’t always everyone’s best friend.
Here’s the crux: Fragrances are a well-known culprit behind contact dermatitis. So, if your skin is sensitive or prone to allergies, fragrance might ruffle its feathers, causing irritation or reactions like redness or itching.
Also, remember that “fragrance” on a product label could refer to a cocktail of different chemicals. Some of these might be kept hush-hush due to trade secret laws, and a few could be less than kind to your skin.
However, and here’s the crucial point, fragrance in sunscreen isn’t an automatic red flag. If your skin happily tolerates fragrances, and the smell of your sunscreen brings joy to your skincare routine, then by all means, enjoy it!
The key is to know your skin and how it reacts. After all, sunscreen should be a delight, not a dilemma.
Shining the light on safer alternatives
But don’t worry! Choosing sunscreen might seem like you’re wading through a sea of potentially harmful ingredients. Still, I assure you that it doesn’t have to be daunting.
And there are several safer, skin-loving alternatives to all those sunscreen ingredients to avoid. So, let’s go SPF shopping together.
Physical sunscreen > chemical sunscreen
Firstly, let’s put mineral-based sunscreens on top of our list.
Why, you ask? Their main ingredients — zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — don’t sneak under our skin but rather sit on top, reflecting harmful UV rays (both UVA and UVB). It’s like having a personal mirror shield for your skin!
Another term you should remember is “non-nano zinc oxide.” When you see this on a label, give yourself a high-five because it means the zinc oxide particles are too large to be absorbed into your bloodstream, reducing any toxicity risk.
Read the label
So, next time you’re about to slather on your sunscreen, take a moment to read the label. Understanding what’s in your products is the first step towards making informed choices about what you put on your skin (and in your bloodstream).
Remember, every label you read is a step towards making an informed decision about avoiding harmful ingredients in sunscreens — a step towards the safety of you and this planet, our shared home.
16 best sunscreens without harmful chemicals
We’ve curated the top 16 sunscreens free from harmful ingredients, so you can protect your skin while staying healthy.
Each one of these SPF formulations is:
- Safe for all skin types, including sensitive skin
- Provides broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays
Check out the curation to find the perfect fit for you.
This zinc-oxide based mineral sunscreen is enriched with chamomile, squalane, and antioxidants for nourishing skincare benefits. Its lightweight, milky, serum-like texture is easy to apply and leaves a soft, natural-looking finish. Plus, it's fragrance-free and reef-friendly, making it an eco-conscious choice.
This 100% mineral sunscreen provides sheer, dewy coverage and added skincare benefits like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Plus, it's available in confusion-free shades to double up as a tinted moisturizer.
This clean, organic foundation provides sheer, buildable coverage with a natural-looking finish. Packed with good-for-the-skin ingredients like zinc oxide, squalane, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide, it hydrates and plumps skin while refining skin texture. With 30 shades, finding the perfect match for your skin tone is easy.
This non-nano mineral sunscreen is non-comedogenic and safe for acne-prone skin. Its lightweight formula blends seamlessly, leaving a natural-looking finish. It has a soft blur effect to create the perfect "no-makeup makeup" look and oil-absorbing microspheres to reduce shine.
This natural finish foundation provides light-to-medium buildable coverage and 100% mineral SPF 30 with non-nano zinc oxide. Its lightweight, blendable formula is available in 14 shades. Plus, it's infused with prickly pear and white sage extracts to protect from blue light and neutralize free radicals from the sun. It's also the first complexion makeup product with the National Eczema Association's Seal of Acceptance.
This 100% mineral sunscreen is enhanced with vitamin C and 16.3% zinc oxide to protect the skin while improving the appearance of dark spots, brightening and evening skin tone with niacinamide. The lightweight, non-greasy formula also has light-reflecting pigments illuminating the complexion and aloe leaf juice to hydrate and smooth the skin.
This 100% non-toxic sunscreen is made with zinc oxide and has a soft, dewy finish. The lightweight, non-greasy formula is enriched with squalane and water lily to hydrate, nourish, cool, and calm the skin.
This formula uses non-nano zinc oxide, supplemented with bush clover extract, aloe leaf juice, and squalane. These additions provide protection from blue light and promote hydration sans a greasy residue. It's distinctive whipped texture and advanced SheerMatrix Technology ensure a barely noticeable finish.
This reef-friendly formula is made with 100% non-nano zinc oxide and a nourishing blend of shea butter, cocoa butter, jojoba, olive, and chia seed oils to protect and hydrate the skin. Plus, it features olive polyphenols for antioxidant protection, and the stick formula makes it easy to reapply throughout the day.
This stabilized, water-free mineral sunscreen delivers supercharged actives, including 10% vitamin C and niacinamide, to brighten skin tone and protect against environmental stressors. Non-nano zinc oxide shields against UV rays, blue light, and pollution. It comes in three translucent tones and absorbs quickly for a smooth, matte finish.
This mineral formula contains zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and a blend of argan, jojoba, sunflower, and squalane oil for glowing, hydrated skin. The Kakadu Plum Complex is a potent source of vitamin C and antioxidants that target collagen breakdown. The milk microsphere dispersion technology delivers an ultra-sheer veil of protection, locking in moisture and revealing a hydrated glow.
This light, moisturizing formula is fortified with hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to help balance skin tone. It also includes silk extracts, which strengthen the skin barrier and prepare it for smooth makeup application. Non-nano zinc oxide offers protection from UV rays, blue light, and pollution. The formula absorbs quickly, resulting in a smooth, matte finish.
This mineral-based sunscreen contains 21.7% non-nano zinc for protection. It also includes peptides and ceramides, which promote skin plumpness, smoothness, and elasticity. Hyaluronic acid and allantoin provide hydration and soothe the skin. It's excellent for outdoor activities with up to 80 minutes of water resistance.
This formula uses zinc oxide and includes algae and sunflower shoot extract, both potent antioxidants, to combat free radicals. It's also enhanced with raspberry seed oil for added environmental protection. Its lightweight nature ensures easy absorption without leaving a white cast or greasy feel.
This tinted SPF moisturizer, with non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, provides physical UV protection. Its color-correcting complex helps cover skin imperfections like redness and discoloration, providing a flawless appearance.
Using patented Cell-Ox Shield technology and a potent antioxidant complex, this 100% mineral sunscreen shields skin from environmental damage. Its tinted composition blends in quickly, leaving a matte finish. As it's non-comedogenic, it's suitable for acne-prone skin. With a water resistance of 40 minutes, it's also perfect for outdoor activities.