You should be able to buy sunscreen without worrying about harmful chemicals. But there are over 80,000 chemicals on the market…and many of them don't have safety data. Here's what you need to know now about the sunscreen ingredients you should (and shouldn't) use.
If you're anything like me, you try to eat healthy and you shop organic produce whenever possible. But did you know that there are equally (if not more) harmful chemicals in the products you put on your body? Like makeup, skin care products…and even sunscreen!
Sunscreen is an important part of many safe skin care routines. And rightly so! A new study by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, an arm of the US Food and Drug Administration shows sunscreen enters your bloodstream after just one day of use.
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Recent research suggests that nearly 90% of melanomas are caused by overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from either the sun or artificial sources. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has even prioritized educating the public on skin cancer prevention efforts because they see a serious gap in most patients' sun safety knowledge.
Of course, confusing marketing claims also make understanding your sunscreen options more challenging. And with the prevalence of some particular sunscreen ingredients, it will be difficult to find a clean sunscreen on most store shelves. Even if you know what you're looking for!
Thankfully, the FDA's recently proposed rule to update regulations for sunscreen could drastically improve this sticky situation. Not only are they moving to collect more solid research on the health concerns of 12 of the 16 most common sunscreen ingredients, but they are also moving to make labeling easier to understand. Finally!
What's the FDA saying about sunscreen ingredients?
In short, they're saying quite a lot. Lucky for you, I've gone through the proposal and pulled out the highlights that you need to know right now about making a smart buying decision.
Essentially, they've broken down the most commonly found active sunscreen ingredients into three categories based on a pool of existing research. These ingredients are being rated according to the ‘generally recognized as safe and effective' (GRASE) standards.
So, what's the big deal?
“In recent years, a growing body of data has suggested that the transdermal absorption of some sunscreen active ingredients is greater than previously thought, and thus may raise previously unevaluated safety concerns, including the potential for reproductive, developmental, or carcinogenic effects.” – FDA
In other words, they're saying there's research that suggests we're absorbing the active ingredients in our sunscreen. At higher rates than previously thought. And this could be seriously affecting our health in a number of ways.
So, what can you do?
For starters, you'll need to know the 2 active sunscreen ingredients that have already been GRASE-approved. That's right…only 2 out of 16 active sunscreen ingredients that are currently sitting on US shelves have been deemed safe! As it currently stands, the odds of you picking a clean sunscreen are not in your favor.
Here's the scoop on the 2 ingredients you absolutely need to stay away from, the 12 problematic ingredients that require plenty of further testing, and the 2 sunscreen ingredients that you can safely use right now.
The 2 Absolute No-No's of Sunscreen Ingredients
The FDA has deemed these as the Category II sunscreen ingredients. They are absolutely not safe and there's lots of data and research to back that claim up.
Those two ingredients are:
- Para-Aminobenzoic Acid (PABA)
- Trolamine salicylate
Long story short, the risks of these ingredients far outweigh the benefits. Severe allergic and photoallergic dermatitis, gastro distress and liver injury were just a few of the side effects of using these particular ingredients.
Thankfully, these ingredients have already been pulled from most sunscreens on US shelves.
The Jury is Out on These 12 Sunscreen Ingredients
These 12 problematic sunscreen ingredients have been deemed Category III by the FDA. This large group of common active ingredients do not have enough data available to say one way or another if they're safe for use or fit the GRASE standards.
Here's the long list of Category III ingredients:
- Padimate O
The most significant gaps in research are found in the first 10 ingredients in that list. So we just don't know if they're safe or not.
The final two sunscreen ingredients on this list have significantly more safety data gathered on them…but I'm not taking any chances on them!
This ingredient is a common organic (chemical) UV filter.
And more than 96 percent of the American population routinely have detectable oxybenzone in their body, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
It has been noted that oxybenzone can also cause product contact and photocontact allergic reactions, a variety of hormone imbalances, and has even been linked to Hirschsprung's disease.
Here's the real problem:
Oxybenzone can be found on the sunscreen ingredient lists of nearly 65 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in EWG’s database.
And we haven't even mentioned the environmental and aquatic dangers this ingredient poses. Coral reef bleaching, fish mortality, and a variety of other toxic reactions too. And wastewater treatment plants can't effectively remove it during processing.
This is concerning enough that Hawaii has already moved forward in banning it.
Oh. And it's not just sunscreen that you have to watch out for with this ingredient. It can be found in other beauty products. Check your perfumes, hair sprays, lipsticks, and conditioners.
Not good. Not good at all. This is an ingredient that I'm staying far, far away from.
Like oxybenzone, this ingredient is an organic UV filter. The FDA has noted that there are a number of gaps with this particular sunscreen ingredient as well – more gaps than with oxybenzone.
Still, its chemical properties suggest that products with this ingredient could potentially be absorbed into your body.
Avobenzone also seems to show signs that it degrades more quickly in sun exposure, ultimately decreasing its effectiveness by anywhere between 50 to 90 percent in the 60 minutes following sun exposure.
It's an active sunscreen ingredient that doesn't actually seem to protect you very well from the sun?
What's the point in that?
The 2 Sunscreen Ingredients that are Safe to Use Right Now
Drumroll please for the two active sunscreen ingredients that have been fully vetted by the FDA as GRASE for use in sunscreens. No further testing or research required!
The two safe sunscreen ingredients are:
- Zinc oxide
- Titanium dioxide
These two sunscreen ingredients are known as mineral sunscreens. While oxybenzone and avobenzone are labeled as “organic” active ingredients, these particular ingredients are “inorganic” UV filters.
Why does this matter?
Inorganic filters, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, actually offer better broad spectrum protection than organic filters. This is because inorganic filters reflect the radiation, whereas organic filters absorb and convert it.
There is substantial research available on these two sunscreen ingredients. It shows that, even with particles on a nanoscale, you are not at risk for absorbing these active ingredients. And they're the only ones considered reef safe.
5 Sun Products with Safe Sunscreen Ingredients
Elizabeth Buzney, MD, outpatient clinical director of the Department of Dermatology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School mentions that she will typically advise her patients with sensitive skin to choose sunscreens containing inorganic ingredients – either zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
Here's my (non-medical) two cents:
I've tested more sunscreens than I can count.
It's really hard to find safe sunscreens that don't irritate my sensitive skin, aren't gloppy, or oily, and don't leave a white cast. At this point, we're basically looking for a four leaf clover!
After much trial and tribulation, here are five zinc oxide sunscreen products that I can wholeheartedly recommend! They also skip unhealthy parabens, petroleum, sulfates, phthalates, and any artificial dyes or fragrances.
This mineral sunscreen lotion is currently my go-to sunscreen. This formula gives you full broad spectrum coverage. I love that it rubs in evenly (like a lotion), feels lightweight, and I'm free of white residue after application. It's perfect for sensitive skin and even children!
Beautycounter has made a promise to never use over 1,500 harmful or questionable ingredients in their products. I appreciate that I never have to worry about buying an unsafe sunscreen when I shop with them. This lotion is my favorite and the one I use the most. It comes in full size and a travel size.
How to Use
Using this sunscreen is really simple. Apply generously about 15 minutes before you head out into the sun. You'll need to reapply after 40 minutes of water-time (or if you're sweating it out on a run). If you're steering clear of the water, reapplying every 2 hours should do the trick!
This is the safe sunscreen solution for anyone who loves the convenience of aerosol spray sunscreens but wants to skip the risk of inhaling it. Beautycounter has come up with a clever non-aerosol formula – this broad spectrum spray is air-powered! They've also formulated this product with a specific non-nano zinc oxide particle size to make sure there is no risk of breathing it when sprayed.
This handy sunscreen formula is also made with California Poppy. Just like my favorite lotion, this spray feels so gentle on your skin. And they're clever with how it applies: it sprays on white to help you check for any missed spots, but it dries without any oily or white residue. This one also has a full size and a travel size.
How to Use
As with lotion, you'll need to apply this sunscreen spray about 15 minutes before taking to the beach. This spray is a slightly better choice for outdoor water activities – you get about 80 minutes of wear time before you'll need to reapply. For everyone else, reapply every 2 hours. The spray makes it quick and easy to reapply.
This is the mineral sunscreen formula to choose if you're an avid traveler (it's carry-on friendly) or suffer from dry skin. This sunscreen is made with organic coconut oil and organic shea butter. It's incredibly moisturizing and I love that it avoids common beauty and skin-care allergens.
Like Beautycounter's lotion and spray formulas, this mineral sunscreen stick is made with non-nano zinc oxide and California Poppy. You get broad-spectrum coverage and beautifully moisturized skin without any slick, oily feeling or white residue.
How to Use
The application for this formula is identical to the spray: apply generously 15 minutes before you head outside and reapply every 80 minutes to 2 hours, depending on whether or not you're in the water.
This water-resistant broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen is a perfect choice if you're active and on the go. This is another one of my preferred non-nano zinc oxide sunscreens. Juice Beauty even packed in some extra antioxidants and essential vitamins too!
The sport formula is thicker and takes longer to rub in, but it's water resistant to 80 minutes. I like this one for snorkeling or if I'm going to be in the water all day.
How to Use
By now you're probably seeing the trend – start by applying a generous layer of sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you step into the sun. This formula is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and you should also reapply every 80 minutes.
This is the face sunscreen I use every day. It comes in 5 different shades (I use No. 2 or No. 3 depending on how tan I am) and provides beautiful sheer coverage. It also provides the perfect amount of SPF protection when you're running around town or heading to and from work.
The ingredients are a stellar combination of black currant, peony flower root extract, as well as vitamin C. All are included to help enhance your skin's natural brightness. And the sodium hyaluronate helps promote a smoother-looking texture. I love that this product offers instant and long-term benefits!
How to Use
Part of why this product has made it into my daily routine is its no-fuss application. You can use it on top of your favorite moisturizer or alone. Or, if you're looking for more coverage, it can also be layered with foundation.
Why I love Beautycounter (and you should too!)
Have you spotted a trend? Yes, 4 of the 5 products listed above are by Beautycounter. I've come to really love this brand for most of my clean beauty products because of their gentle clean formulas. They're perfect for my sensitive skin!
Here are a few things to consider if you're still on the fence:
- They choose packaging free of harmful chemicals that could potentially leach into the product itself
- That means they choose glass, safe plastics, and sustainable paper – and skip PVC and BPA
- Most of their product packaging (which includes shipping materials) is also recyclable across North America
So, not only is Beautycounter making stellar clean beauty and skincare products, but they're also showing serious commitment to environmental sustainability.
And here's the key thing to remember. As Dr. Buzney puts it:
“All sunscreen ingredients are chemicals. A molecule is a chemical. Even the “physical” sunscreens containing zinc and titanium are chemicals.”
So the challenge is not in finding a “chemical-free” sunscreen, but actually understanding which active sunscreen ingredients are safe to use on your skin.
Luckily you're now in the know! Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to confidently choose a safe sunscreen for you and your family.