8 Toxic Ingredients in Sunscreen and How to Avoid Them

February 19, 2021
By Stephanie Osmanski
In Clean Label


The American Academy of Dermatology reports that 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. We lather on sunscreen not because getting a tan isn’t desirable, but to block the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays which can cause sunburn and the cancer ‘melanoma.’

However, sunscreen could harm in other ways– some brands are guilty of loading sunscreen with toxic chemicals, preservatives, and additives that can be dangerous. After all, if a “low” enough percentage of a dangerous toxin is added to a formula, the brand can legally still use certain labels. This is largely considered “greenwashing” – as it pertains to the environment – or in this case, maybe even “healthwashing.” Reassuring buzzwords on labels may not always be trustworthy as there are currently no federal regulations to define such terms as “natural” or “green” in skincare or cosmetics.

So here are some pointers for what to avoid and what to look for in your sunscreen!

Dangers of Aerosol Sunscreen Sprays

Before we get into specific toxic sunscreen ingredients, you should know that aerosol – or spray – sunscreens are also harmful by their own accord and not just because of ingredients. Aerosol sunscreens have the potential to cause lung damage, as some of the product could be inhaled when sprayed. Though children are more likely to inhale during a sunscreen spray-down, the threat holds true for adults, as well.

“We know a lot of the ingredients are really good at blocking radiation and are safe when used in topical formations,” Dr. Asif Pirani, a plastic surgeon, also told Global News. “But we don’t know what happens when you inhale them.” So, while it’s important to pay attention to sunscreen ingredients, also refrain from purchasing aerosol sprays.

Keep reading for 8 toxic ingredients hidden in your sunscreen!

What Are the Toxic Ingredients in Sunscreens?

Benzophenone-3 (Oxybenzone)
An oxybenzone, Benzophenone-3 is a sunscreen ingredient approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it is extremely effective at minimizing exposure to UV rays.

However, it is a known skin and eye irritant and absorbs into the skin. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 97 percent of Americans have levels of Benzophenone-3 already in their bloodstreams.

Avobenzone & Octocrylene
Avobenzone has been used as an alternative to Benzophenenone and its derivatives. However, Avobenzone, which breaks down in the sun within 30 minutes, shares much of the same concerns regarding photodegradation and free radicals, as does Octocrylene (a synthetic UV absorber approved for use with concentrations up to 10%) with which avobenzone is most often paired. Octocrylene can bio-accumulate, meaning it builds up in the body much quicker than the body can get rid of it, which poses a health concern. More free radicals means a higher risk of developing skin cancer and allergies, so it’s best to stay away from these ingredients entirely.

While levels of formaldehyde are relatively low in sunscreen, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer both report the colorless and odorless gas as a known carcinogen. So, even if the label is free from the cancer-causing ingredient formaldehyde, double-check! Formaldehyde can be lurking in the sunscreen ingredient list under other names – Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin, and Hydroxymethylglycinate. These ingredients aren’t technically formaldehyde, but they are preservatives generally used in place of parabens and can actually cause the release of formaldehyde.

Does your sunscreen smell like coconut cream or a fruity, tropical drink? There’s a reason and it is not a good one. Fragrances are potential allergens, and can contain hidden ingredients such as phthalates or styrene, a carcinogen.

The FDA recognizes homosalate as an effective UV absorber, however the FDA also limits its presence to 15 percent because of its toxicity.  Homosalate is an endocrine or hormone disruptor that bioaccumulates. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, endocrine disruptors “mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body.” This can result in the development of cancer or damage to the thyroid, neurodevelopment, reproductive system, metabolism, and can cause obesity.

Also sometimes labeled as octyl methoxycinnamate, this ingredient filters UV rays, making it an effective ingredient in sunscreens. However, it is also an endocrine disruptor and traces have been found in human urine, blood, and even breast milk.

Retinyl Palmitate
Retinyl palmitate is a type of vitamin A that is heralded for its ability to slow the aging process. But this ingredient may be dangerous, despite its anti-aging benefits. Retinyl palmitate is photocarcinogenic, which means that sun exposure causes it to break down, releasing carcinogens. The FDA reports a concern that regular application of vitamin A could cause a build-up in the body that pregnant women should avoid, as it may be toxic for a developing fetus.

What to Look for in a Nontoxic but Effective Sunscreen?

❖ An effective, high-quality, and safe sunscreen should offer broad spectrum protection, be water-resistant, and have an SPF of 30 or higher.

❖ Mineral or physical sunscreens; safe ingredients to look for include zinc oxide and titanium oxide, both of which are Environmental Working Group (EWG)-approved.

❖ Sunscreens that are high in vitamins E and C, as these natural antioxidants enhance a sunscreen’s ability to block UV rays and fight free-radical damage. Look for tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate as it is one of the most stable forms of Vitamin C and is less irritating than others.

Finally, get rid of sunscreens that have expired. According to the CDC, most sunscreens last three years, so if you’ve had a bottle or stick for longer than that, it’s time to say goodbye.

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